Thursday, 22 January 2009

Pet Hates

There are a few things that make me wince when I find them in people's writing. Overuse of adverbs in speech tags is one. For myself, in dialogue, I'm happiest with the almost invisible 'said'. I can accept that sometimes a judicious adverb is useful for emphasis or characterisation, but I prefer them kept to a minimum.

I'm reading a thriller whose author can't write a line of dialogue without an adverb, and it makes me want to scream. Nobody ever simply says anything. They interrupt disdainfully, ask drowsily, interpose haughtily (yes, honestly, I'm not making this up), and murmur uneasily, but they rarely just talk to each other. So there are passages like this (characters' names changed to protect the innocent author):

'Filth,' said Liz blankly.
'Muck,' elaborated Beauchamp helpfully. 'Dirt. Sewage. You know.'
'I know,' replied Liz distantly.

I think it's lazy writing, because - used in this quantity - adverbs don't really enable us to see, feel or understand the characters. I find actions are often more helpful here. Try this:

'Filth.' Liz looked blank.
'Muck.' Beauchamp touched Liz's elbow to try to gain her attention. 'Dirt. Sewage. You know.'
'I know.' Liz gazed into the middle distance, her eyes unfocused.

I'm not trying to pass that off as Grate Litrachur (after all, it was written by Moi) but I think characters develop more depth and are more engaging if we 'see' what they're doing, rather than being fed shorthand adverb codes. It's harder to write but more rewarding (for me at least) to read.

(Another one from this thriller (and I haven't changed the character's name in this one; you'll see why) was: 'Thank you very much,' said Michael flatly. That made me giggle. The thriller was published in 2004, by which time Mr F had been well known for at least 10 years. Even if the author hadn't thought of it - and I know how easy it is to miss such things - surely her agent, or her publisher, or her editor, or her mum or someone could have spotted it?)

So that's one of my betes noire. Another is the use of the word 'indescribable,' as in 'her expression was indescribable.' Nooooooo, you're a writer, for goodness' sake, it's your job to describe her expression, or his injuries, or the view! And, in fiction, 'it was impossible to imagine...', or its equivalent(s), also has me gnashing my teeth. There can be a place for this one in non-fiction, mostly in direct reporting of experience, as in 'It was impossible for me to imagine the tribespeople's lives before I visited their island.' It would also work in fiction if applied to a character who has a lack of imagination. But, generally, published writers of fiction hope or expect to earn their living by describing things they imagine. So it seems to me that they should be able to imagine and describe those things. For sure it's difficult - but simply saying something can't be described, or imagined, is a monumental cop-out.

Your turn - what enrages you when you see it on a page? (Answers such as 'squashed fly', 'dried bogey' etc will not be accepted.)

10 comments:

JJ said...

...to protect the innocent author? But they're not really, are they?

My pet hates? Stupid characters who could sort out the problems if they just asked/did the obvious thing.

Leigh said...

I'm with you on this one, though I accept that there is a place for it. I know from my research into magazine markets, that the, shall we call them lower-end readers, prefer more adverbs. Easy writing, easy reading, I suppose, and better that they read that, than not at all. But, in general, I'm on your side here.

HelenMHunt said...

Brilliant post! Especially 'Michael Flatly' walking unannounced into the novel :)

Queenie said...

JJ, oh yes!!! That drives me nuts too. Leigh, good point about easy writing = easy reading, I hadn't thought of that. Helen, thank you! I know, it's a hoot.

PI said...

My mind's gone blank - possibly feeling too vulnerable re writing boobs so may I go off on a tangent?
I was about to order Diana Athill's latest book from Amazon and, on a whim, read a review from a reader - Charles Wheeler- I think it was - who was also a published writer. In spite of the fact that he had worked with her in the past and acknowledged her help, it was such a blistering review that I had second thoughts.
I suppose what I'm trying to say is that if the writer is someone one likes one, is more charitable and less critical. But then again there is good writing and bad writing, and should I be influenced by someone else's acerbic opinion? It's been a long hard day.

Queenie said...

PI (and JJ, I forgot last time): I kind of think that if someone gets a book published, they deserve some credit for that, however rubbish I think the book is. The author I'm talking about has written several thrillers so there must be people out there who enjoy her work. Also virtually all writing can be criticised for something. It is a hard one to call, though.

Quillers said...

I think much does depend on the market, and intended audience. I'm not as anti-adverbs as some people are, though I do agree that as with everything in writing, they should be used sparingly.

JJ: With you completely on the people who could sort out their problems just by asking a simple question.

Also characters who make the same mistakes over and over and never grow as characters or learn from their mistakes. Like Bridget Jones, especially the second film/novel. After a bit you do begin to think 'What is her bloody problem? She's sleeping with Colin Firth, for goodness sake. Some women are never satisfied...'

KAREN said...

Michael flatly!! Dear oh dear.

I don't like it when a character goes into a big flashback scene to explain what led to her getting divorced (for instance) from someone who's never even mentioned again in the novel. Feed it in subtly, in small doses, if you must :o) Not you personally. Obviously, she sighed...

Queenie said...

Quillers, LOL! Karen: ooh yes, I agree completely, also I get fed up when most of a novel is written in flashback (unless for some sensible practical reason like the protagonist being 95 years old).

Clare Sudders said...

I mentioned it over on Novel Racers, but I bloody hate it when people keep switching tense for no good reason, sometimes even mid-paragraph. It seems to be a blind spot that some people have, cos when I've pointed it out for people whose mss I was editing, they hadn't even moticed and some didn't really see what the big deal was. Drives me mad though. Just feels all wrong, brings me up short, spoils the flow.