Put down that book

Put down that book

Wotcher!

So it’s been a while, hasn’t it? How have you been? Recently settled back into my little Canadian dwelling after a long, wonderful and exhausting trip to Europe, it seems to me that this rainy day is perfect for a new blog post.

Shall we talk a bit about writing? I’d like that.

Now, I love a good book. One of my favourite activities is to wander around Waterstones and pluck random novels from the shelves. Every reader has their own little ritual for picking a book. Some will look at the blurb on the back. Some go for prize-winning works. Some get recommendations from friends. Maybe some of you like to judge them by their covers, shame on you.

Here’s my personal method, feel free to test it.

First I look at the blurb. Is it snappy? Is the plot appealing to me? Good. Then I open it at page one and read the first two or three paragraphs. If I find myself reading the whole page and then some, that book is mine!

Finally I open it somewhere in the middle and once again, read a few paragraphs. This is because the opening of a novel is not always reflective of the entirety of the writing. Is the dialogue any good? How does the style hold throughout? This is important because there are quite a few, shall we say, grammatical choices that will make me put down a book and never ever ever ever pick it up again.

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Let us review some of those, because why the hell not?

Bland narration

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There is a stereotype in the writing world that first person is for young adults. There are first person young adult novels, absolutely, of course, sure. But there is also Irvine Welsh. Present tense storytelling suffers from the same stereotype. But once again, give Irvine Welsh a try. His are some pretty fucking brilliant first person, present tense novels.

But.

More often than not you open a first person novel and it feels like the usual third person narrator is for some reason speaking in first person. You cannot, repeat, cannot approach a first person narrative in the same way you would a third person narrative. They are completely different and require two very different states of mind from the author. When you are writing in first person, your narrator isn’t some mystical entity (unless it is). It’s a person. A living, breathing human being (unless it’s not).

You need to be an actor. You are the character. You’re a fifty-year-old working-class lorry driver with a kind heart and simple style. Would you describe your partner like a painter would describe a sunset? Doubtful. You are brushing your teeth after a long day at work. Would you stop and describe your wavy dark hair and piercing green eyes in front of the bathroom mirror? No, you would not.

Besides, it is so much fun to just be a character, act like them, talk like them. Go ahead and enjoy it. If you do, there’s a good chance your readers will too.

 

Over-the-top punctuation

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Ellipsis followed by exclamation mark does not… create surprise! It is not… punchy! Mainly, it’s just… aggravating!

That is not how you create suspense in a scene. Don’t you see how it doesn’t make any sense? Suspense should build through content and emotions. This is a gimmick. Get rid of it.

Please also get rid of this!! And how about leaving this in the trash?! In fact, even a single exclamation point, used by a third person narrator, is cringe-worthy. “Then he discovered that, standing next to her, was his father!” Why are you attracting attention to yourself? You are not a character, you are not part of this story, make yourself scarce, for God’s sakes!!

Here’s a confession. I put down The Catcher in the Rye and never took it up again. Want to know why? Because it kept telling me how to pronounce every single sentence. Italics are acceptable if, and I would argue only if, the sentence could mean two different things, depending on the inflection. Otherwise, keep your italics for titles and foreign language words.

Yes, style is important. Yes, experimenting is fine. But please do make sure it actually improves the immersion. Stories are meant to be captivating, to draw you in. Aggressive punctuation pulls you out. Just do the math.

 

Forced feelings

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Okay so I’m just going to come out and say it. Twilight. The Twilight series is a great example of that, but it is not the only one.

You’ve seen this happen. The main girl and the main guy are madly in love and you can’t for the life of you figure out why. “But Gwen, love just happens, there is no why!” Shut it, stop, don’t. People who don’t have fun together, don’t laugh together, don’t share deep thoughts, don’t allow themselves to be silly in front of each other, people who don’t like each other are not in a strong forever relationship. If they hadn’t tragically and stupidly died, I would have given Romeo and Juliet about a month together. Love at first sight? Please. I think what you mean is lust at first sight. And you can’t write a good romance on lust alone. When I read about a romance, I want to be reading about a friendship.

This also goes for other feelings. Hate. Jealousy. Guilt. Shame. Don’t force your characters to feel things because you want them to. Create the believable circumstances in which they will organically come to feel the feels. They will thank you for it. Or they won’t. Don’t pressure them.

 

So here you have a nice little top three of what will make me put down a book. What are your personal pet peeves? How about sharing with the rest of the group?

Laters!

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