Tuesday, 10 March 2009

What NOT to do

Most books aren’t perfect. Everyone understands this, usually we will notice a mistake and then ignore it. I’ve read a lot of books recently that have really annoying problems that pull my attention away from the story. What’s even worse is that most of these are good books! Yep there are worse faults in books – poor editing and an unbelievable plot spring to mind. But when a book is so nearly there it's almost worse. These things are so basic, so easy to avoid! I've written a list of the most recent that I've read, leaving out more general problems, like having characters who don’t act their age. I don’t want to mention any names or point fingers, but I do want to share these with the world.

Things that authors shouldn’t do but seem to far too often:

Have an ‘expert’ spy make loads of mistakes. Like every now and then pausing and instinctively feeling that someone is following her, but not being able to see someone and shrugging. No matter, I have more important matters to deal with. – I get that this is to show the audience something the character doesn’t know – uh-oh, someone must be following her! But a master spy just wouldn’t repeatedly ignore their instincts. Especially when they have just been set up for murder by another expert spy and are running for their life. Such a spy would think, maybe it’s the person who set me up! They are following me. It is because they are an expert spy who can manage to set me, another expert spy, up, that I can’t see them, not because there is no-one and I’m just feeling a little jumpy.

Having a ‘positive’ ending being that ah well, the guy she loved has died, but they’ve defeated the bad guy and for the last page we suddenly move to the point of view of a completely different man whose point of view we’ve never seen before. He is thinking ‘I’m glad we’ve survived because I’ve been in love with her since first I saw her.’ – There was NO CLUE to this through the entire book. And this is supposed to make me feel better. Yay, the main character has a chance at love after all! That guy was interested in her the whole time!

Having aforesaid guy feeling happy in the last page of the book that he has a chance with her. – Erm, he has a chance because HIS FRIEND WHO SHE WAS IN LOVE WITH HAS JUST BEEN MURDERED!!! This is maybe one or two days after the death. And it’s supposed to make the reader feel that the ending was positive. Also, Aforesaid guy, you should concentrate on more immediate problems, like getting down off that roof.

Having main character children realising that adults have a secret that somehow involves them. They then get into (life threatening) trouble trying to discover the secret. The finale is that the adults come and rescue them – The children have essentially accomplished nothing. Granted, the adults admit the truth in the end, but I’d like the kids to play an actual role.

Main characters arriving in a new and (inevitably) very dangerous world where everyone they meet is suspicious and not to be trusted. By coincidence, the first person they meet is a nice person who helps them and warns them about not trusting anyone else – Usually this person goes far out of their way to help these random strangers, like going on a whole quest with them. Quite often by more sheer coincidence, the person’s past is somehow linked with the quest that the main characters now face. They may not remember this past but then a chance clue will show them that everything is somehow linked.

A sweet lovely family of kids with the oldest looking out for the youngest since the mother died – The dying mother usually extracts a promise from her eldest child to take care of the baby. Often if you work the ages backwards, this oldest child was about eight at the time. There is a perfectly acceptable father, yet the mother feels compelled not to ask him to take care of the kids, but to make an eight-year-old promise to do it.

Character’s who are ‘klutzy’ and therefore knock over everything in their path (and sometimes out of it too) and can’t control anything that comes out of their mouth – this is more of a personal pet peeve. There’s just too many of these characters in teen fiction.

Characters who are geniuses and therefore are inevitably socially incompetent. They will get nervous whenever they experience human interaction, quite often actually forgetting how to speak, putting words in the wrong order or something – I understand not being able to think of anything to say. But forgetting how to speak entirely? Every time anyone speaks to you? This isn't someone just not knowing what to say, this is people going 'there I'll over put it. I mean I'll put it over there.' These characters almost always get the cute, popular guy/girl, who finds their lack-of-speech-ability amusing and endearing rather than strange.

Historical fiction books where the character will ask a question that they would know the answer to just so the author can explain it to the audience – example being a person in Henry VIII’s reign asking what attainting is. Anyone in that time would know because it happened on a regular basis, there’s no way a teenager of the time would have no clue. It’s simply done for the audience today, who can’t be expected to know what attainting is because it doesn’t happen now. But for anyone who already has good knowledge of whatever time period the story is set in, this stands out badly.

Having books start with letters along the lines of; ‘dearest mother, I can’t believe I haven’t seen you for three months, ever since you went to London with my elder sister Primrose in the hopes of finding her a husband. We have visitors. As you know, our modest country house has enough room to hold ten visitors quite comfortably so the group of thirty staying with us presently is causing problems. My childhood friend James and I have been visiting my Uncle...’ – Information overkill! Can’t the author find a better way of setting the scene? Straight away I know it’s out of character before I even know the character. (I completely made that particular opening up as I’m sure you can tell. I’ve read too many books that start similarly though).

I'm sure there are lots more, but I can't think of any right now and I don't want to carry on finding fault. Without exception, all of these were taken from books that I've enjoyed, (even with the more general problems, I've liked books that are guilty of them) some directly from books that I've loved. Please authors, you've written a wonderful book, don't let me get distracted by little things like those! I want to carry on loving your work, not feeling critical.

Rant over =)
Any specific problems you've run into recently? (please don't turn this into a shooting match though. I don't want to know the name of every book you hate, just any problems that have stopped a good book being a great book for you)


  1. These are a lot of great points. For me, another problem that often happens in books is pov switch without telling the reader. In one instance where this happened, I spent 50 pages of the book trying to figure out why the main character switched genders.

  2. Haha, I realized I sounded a bit stupid especially when, yes, the only thing British about the excerpt was "mesmerising." Sigh. Do you think I need professional help or something?

  3. Priya, that's funny. I can imagine how confused you were =)
    And Steph Su, it wasn't stupid, you're just very observant. Maybe that's a good thing!

  4. These points are spot-on. I don't know how many books I've read that include at least one of those.

  5. That book with the guy dying and his best friend being happy...you have to tell me what that is!

  6. That book with the guy dying and his best friend being happy? A good book I read recently. I'll email the title to you Lenore, because I don't want people not to read the book. (also, it happens right at the end, so is kind of a major plot spoiler). I'm sure there are lots of books out there ending similarly though.

  7. Apt list! One more I'd add is: including research overkill because you're a hisotrical fiction writer and all that research was too cool not to include. (as a historical writer, I've learned the hard way that the story is king, not the neat-but-irrelevant details!)

  8. Great list. Sooo many books do this, and it's annoying.

  9. The research overkill is a good point and it must be hard to get the balance right, especially as potentially, readers will range from knowing nothing about the time period to having specialist knowledge about it.
    I'm thinking I might do another post like this some time, when I've collected some more along these lines.

  10. Lol, I want to know the title, too. My biggest one right now is just dumb people. Of course that could be life annoying me... Ooooh, I have a good one. A book I just read described Saskatoon as "a few hundred miles west of Toronto". Research UNDERkill there :P

  11. I know which one has the dying mother extracting the promise from the 8-year-old, but I hadn't done the math. Wow, now that really bothers me. Evidently it didn't bother the National Book Award committee... but then, neither did its lack of a plot. Be sure to read the sequel anyway--it's much better, IMO, and has the same lovely characters. And a plot! :-)