Friday, November 22, 2019

Tokens, mirrors, cell phones and magnificent breasts - Now that I have your attention...

Which cliches, plot devices, or characters drive you crazy in the books you read? Let’s hear some pet peeves.

What a week it’s been. My new novel, Death in the East was released in the UK and Europe last Thursday and I’ve spent almost every minute of the intervening week on planes, trains and taxis, running from one event to the other. I’ve been from a rain-soaked Milan to a freezing cold Edinburgh and, it feels, almost everywhere in between.

My new book. Please buy it, cos my kids need shoes.

Right now, I’m sitting in my mum’s apartment in London after spending the night on the Caledonian Sleeper down from Glasgow. It’s the first time I’ve done it, and I feel the word ‘sleeper’ is a bit of a misnomer.

So far, the tour’s been both great and gruelling, and there still a few more days of it to go, but right now I have a few hours to relax: jus enough time to tell you about some of  many, many things that annoy me in books.

I’ve read the posts of my fellow bloggers and found myself laughing and nodding in agreement, and also holding my hand up and owning up to the fact that I’ve been guilty of a lot of the transgressions that they highlight, for which I’m truly sorry.

What can I add to that extensive and accurate list?

Number 1 - Look at me! I'm a straight white writer inserting token minority characters (who are exactly like my straight white characters!) 

The thing that upsets me more than anything else is poorly drawn token characters from minority groups, who often seem to play no real part in the story or are just straight, white characters who’ve been ‘blacked up’ or ‘gay-ed up’ by the writer as a way of signalling how woke they are, without doing their research into the culture which their two-dimensional token character is meant to come from. The most egregious case I recall was that of an author introducing a character as ‘the Hindu’ (despite the character's religion having absolutely nothing to do with the plot - I’ve never seen that writer introduce a character as ‘the Christian’) then a few paragraphs later giving ‘the Hindu’ a Muslim name, and then, on the next page, giving him a Sikh turban! 

Ice Cube sums up my feelings on the matter

I stopped reading at that point. I don’t care how brilliant the plot is, or how praised the author, if they can’t be bothered getting the most basic facts about their characters right, then they don’t deserve my attention. That’s not to say a writer should only write about characters of their own ethnicity, religion or sexuality – far from it – it’s just that when you do it, make sure you do it well and with sensitivity, and don’t fall into lazy, cliched stereotypes.

Man, it felt good to get that off my chest! What’s next on my hit-list? I’ll tell you:

Number 2 - Lead characters who look in the mirror in chapter one and describe themselves for the reader’s benefit

You all know what I’m talking about. 
‘Lance Strongbow looked in the mirror. His blue eyes sparkled and his blond hair tumbled over muscular shoulders…’
Sod off Strongbow, and sod off the author who wrote you. Far too often authors feel they need to describe every detail of their protagonist in the first few pages when actually, most of the time, they should be concentrating on the story. Even when it is necessary to describe the character, the looking in the mirror as though they’ve never noticed themselves before, just p's me off.

Which leads me nicely on to my next pet peeve: 

Number 3 - Breasts

Male authors describing female characters and spending far, far, far too much time describing their heaving, voluptuous, pert, perky, [insert male fantasy adjective here] breasts. What is this fascination with breasts? Actually, that’s rhetorical. I know the fascination, but do we need to lay it so bare on the page? What’s worse is when the male writer puts his female character in front of a mirror and tells us how amazed/proud/saddened she is by her own breasts! I think there’s a special place in literary hell reserved for these authors. At the very least, they deserve a slap.

'startled breasts' - one of literally a million examples of men writing badly about women

Right. I’m getting angry now. One more and then I’ll lie down.

I could go for gratuitous sex scenes or gratuitous violence or serial killers who seem to be more creative in their mutilations than Picasso, but my colleagues have already highlighted them. So I suppose I’ll have to go for this:

Number 4: Dead cell phones

The hero or victim’s mobile phone that dies, is left on the sofa, loses coverage at the worst possible moment, generally two minutes before they enter the abandoned building/deep dark forest where axe wielding murderer/serial killer/certified public accountant-gone-rogue is lying in wait. 

Now I understand the issue. So many wonderful literary deaths and ingenious plot twists would be demolished if Jessica Fletcher simply received a call from her colleague telling her ‘Don’t go into the derelict fish processing factory! The mad actuary with the lopsided grin is waiting inside and he’s the one who’s killed half the pensioners in Cabot Cove because their extraordinary longevity has affected the accuracy of his life insurance tables!’ But of course, we need Mrs Fletcher to go into that fish processing factory, which is to say, the story needs it for tension. I just wish we could come up with better and more innovative methods of stopping those pesky phone signals.

Oh! The mad psychotic killer is in there, is he? Well thanks for calling!

Well that was cathartic. I’ve been on the road for seven days straight and I’m cranky, but having a rant has made me feel much better! I’ll just end by saying, please read my new book, Death in the East. I can promise you that the minority characters are well drawn, that the men don’t look in any mirrors and the women don’t comment on the magnificence of their own breasts. It’s set in 1922 and 1905, so there are no pesky cell phones to worry about, and there are not one, but two fiendish locked room murders to solve. Go on! You know you want to!

Thursday, November 21, 2019

BĂȘtes Noires

Which cliches, plot devices, or characters drive you crazy in the books you read? Let’s hear some pet peeves.

Disclaimer: The following pet peeves are offered with good humor, not ridicule. There are countless exceptions to these examples, and I am guilty of many of these cliches in my own books.

Things that drive me nuts in books:

Thriller tough guys named Jack, Dick, Rick, and Nick. What is it about monosyllabic names that end in -ck? Do those letters convey badassery? What about Maurice and Merriweather, Leslie, and Llewelyn? Then there are the “hard” surnames like Brick, Steel, or Stone. Oh, wait. Stone is okay. Whatever happened to the Farquhars, Finklesteins, Drinkwaters, and Lipshitzes of the world?

Good girls don’t die. Bad girls do. For some reason, many writers—and readers—want their heroines to be chaste as they’re chased through a novel. Sex has become a four-letter word. Somehow a female character who engages in the occasional dirty deed either has loose morals and/or she’s the next murder victim in the story. And her sexuality gives readers permission not to care about her. What the hell is that?

Which brings us to sex. Have you ever noticed in books and movies how unrealistic the sex is? It’s fast and dead serious and described in highest literary prose with throbbing metaphors that might tell us more about the author than the characters. No fumbling, awkward questions, or elbows in the eye. No falling off piano benches. In short, no fun. My rule of thumb is to remember that your mother is going to read your book. Write your sex scenes with that in mind and you can’t go wrong.

Uber Villains/Evil Geniuses
Unless your bad guy/gal drives for a certain ride-share company, avoid the uber villain. I can’t recall one of these cliches who ever had a compelling reason for being so evil. If it’s money they’re after, why don’t they use their genius to earn it honestly? It’s certainly possible, especially if you’re super smart and well-armed with an army of henchmen and a cat.

Ancient Secrets That Threaten to Destroy the World
If the Freemasons/Illuminati/Cabalists couldn’t manage to destroy the world two hundred/five hundred/a thousand years ago, why would they be able to pull it off now? And speaking of these plots, how is a handsome middle-aged professor/secret agent/linguist, saddled with a Bryn Mawr sophomore love interest hanging off his cardigan like an oversized watch fob, going to  stop Armageddon single-handedly?

Why Is There Never a Cop around When a Crime Is In Progress?
This goes for crime fiction as well as thrillers. Villains slaughter their victims by the dozens, often in broad daylight or on a busy thoroughfare, but it’s always up to the lone detective or handsome middle-aged professor/secret agent/linguist to end the carnage. No one who guns down eight people on Fifth Avenue ever gets caught. They always make good their escape. Car chases that end with the bad guy getting away constitute a sub-category of this pet peeve.

High body counts
When there are enough dead bodies to field a football team, you may have too many victims. Surely so many murders would make national news. And, again, where are the cops? Just going by the law of averages, a police officer would eventually be standing right there next to the victim, right?

Alcoholic main characters 
This one is such a cliche... Oh, wait. Never mind.

No one ever brushes their teeth 
I’m sure they do, but does anyone recall actually reading about it in a book? Characters in novels don’t go to the bathroom either.

Rogue Cops/Agents

Cop Boyfriends in Cozy Mysteries
A sine qua non of the sub-genre.

Serial Killers Who Pose Dead Bodies
I would ask who the hell has time to do this after they’ve murdered someone, but then I recall that you can never find a cop when you need one.

Serial Killers Who Taunt the Police with Clues
You’ve got to be one confident criminal to do this. It’s the equivalent of the hare spotting the tortoise a big head start.

Guns, Especially on Covers 
I’m a fan of the blunt object or fall from a great height.

Use them sparingly. More than one can kill believability. But, if we’re to believe actuaries, coincidences happen. And they can be kind of cool in a story, provided you don’t rely on them for the conclusion.

As I conclude this rumination on pet peeves in fiction, I realize that if writers were to avoid all these cliches, there would probably be no stories left to tell. Because, in truth, I don’t mind any of these cliches, provided they’re handled well. I use cliches all the time in my work, maybe because they ultimately represent universalities. Use them carefully.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Cringe worthy

Which cliches, plot devices, or characters drive you crazy in the books you read? Let’s hear some pet peeves.

by Dietrich

There’s something for everybody on the printed page. When I pick up a book, I want to become engaged in the story right away. If the story doesn’t draw me in within a few pages, I set it aside and choose a different book. The thing is, although I read a lot, there are more good books out there than I’m ever going to be able to get to in this lifetime. So, I’d rather spend my time reading something that resonates and might inspire my own writing than something that doesn’t work for me.

Aside from an engaging story, an author’s style and voice has to draw me in. Well-written dialogue and unique, interesting characters, and unexpected, yet believable twists I didn’t see coming go a long way. I’m always looking for authors I haven’t read before, hoping for something fresh and well told. And once I find one, I look for other books by the same author. And if a book is exceptional, I’ll be sure to reread it sometime.
When I’m reading, there are things that jump out at me, things that I’d call pet peeves:

Writing that is safe, has no heart and no distinct style.

Preachy writing.

Talking heads – dialogue that’s flat and doesn’t go anywhere.

Narrative dialogue.

Politically correct dialogue that doesn’t seem real.

Tedious detail – when an author paints a scene and forgets there’s a story that’s supposed to be moving forward.

Overuse of adverbs and adjectives.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King

Overused cliches and idioms.

Go nowhere subplots, or the ones that are left hanging by the story’s end.

A dragging backstory that doesn’t move the overall story.
“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Overuse of these things should be banned.

One dimensional characters that are more caricature than they are believable, like the indestructible hero, or a protagonist who is all good, or an antagonist who is all bad.

Predictable set-ups and outcomes.

Improbable twists and endings.

An author with a thesaurus.

Dialogue tags besides said or asked. Nobody should chortle or murmur. Ever. Or just as bad, the use of adverbs to modify dialogue tags.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Gorgeous, handsome, and unbelievable

It’s always hard to find fresh ways to describe characters and situations. Sometimes tall, dark, and handsome is all you can come up with. Sometimes the only valid response to fear is heart pounding, stomach clenching, freezing, or fainting. I understand that. I just took a workshop in which we were challenged to come up with alternate ways to depict fear, loathing, attraction, bemusement and all the bevy of feelings our characters can have. It was hard.

But some things are so over-used that when I read them I wonder if the author has ever read another crime novel. I just finished reading a book that was really, really good. Great plot, well, written, good characters….except. Every single woman was “not just pretty, but beautiful.” Grippingly, stunningly, outrageously, truly beautiful. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really meet that many beautiful women. And of course each man was taller and better-looking than the next. Where were the average people? The ones with hair that didn’t quite measure up? The ones with eyes too close together or a nose that didn’t match the face? Or the ears that stuck out? Oh, there was one. The jealous girl. She got fat when she was older. That seems to be the worst thing that can happen to a woman in fiction. Yeah, it is in real life, too, but in fiction couldn’t she just get gaunt for a change?

Red hair and green eyes. I don’t know where thriller writers hang out, but it seems to be in places populated almost exclusively by red-headed women—preferably red-headed women with green eyes and breathtaking bodies. And these women don’t come any age but under thirty, and are gaga about the forty or even fifty-something male protagonists. And those males are built like gods. Look out, Ares! And they have chiseled features. Couldn’t one of these women occasionally have short legs or an overbite, or squinty eyes? Couldn’t the men be average-looking with only one or two amazing skills?

And then there’s the drunk, morose cop, or the drunk, morose detective, or the drunk, morose side-kick. Couldn’t one of these guys sometimes be so cheerful that it drives everybody around them crazy? Couldn’t one of them be happily married? To a woman who’s a bitch to everybody else, but treats him like a god? Couldn’t they have well-adjusted, friendly kids (yeah, I know that really is a step too far, but this is fiction!)

In cozies, why does every amateur detective have to be so perky? And why does she always have two boyfriends—the solid, kind, friendly one; and the bad boy that she knows she should stay away from, but…he’s irresistible. Why do they always have to have some job that involves the body—in particular, something to ingest? Couldn’t there be an occasional bank teller that solves crimes? Or an accountant? And while we’re on the subject of cozies, how do all those stunningly incompetent cops keep their jobs?

When I started my Samuel Craddock series, one of the driving forces behind writing an older, retired protagonist was the cliched “little old man” or “little old lady” who answers the door when the detective knocks. This character can barely make it to the door, shuffles along; she wears fluffy sweaters or he has food stains on his shirt…and he or she “must be at least sixty.” Do these writers know any sixty-year-olds?

I love to be surprised. One reason I love Robert Galbraith’s series (she’s J.K. Rowlings in another iteration) is that her protagonist is missing a leg—and the prosthesis gives him trouble. She knows she doesn’t have to describe his thunderous look when she has people glance at him and move away from him hastily. Or how about Joe R. Lansdale’s detective, Hap, whose father nailed him when he said, “he might fuck up a lot, but he’s no quitter.” Hap is pure goofball. He’s an awful person, and I love him.

As for plot devices, as long as the story is well-written, with interesting characters, I can put up with most plots. But there are a few plots I’ve had to stop reading for a while. The dead sister novel. I don’t know why, but there seemed to be a rash of those in the last few years. Maybe that was because a few years before that there were the dead brother novels. I guess everybody is somebody’s son, daughter, parent, or sibling. What I object to is when the sibling is the one who solves the crime—which happened years ago, and does by suddenly discovering…I once put down a book that was humming along fairly well when the protagonist “suddenly” decided to open a desk drawer in her dead father’s study—eight years after he died. I could put up with it if she had been away all that time, but she hadn’t. She was right there. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine leaving my dead father’s desk unopened for eight years after he died.

All the things I’ve mentioned come under the heading of “true to life.” And here’s where it gets tricky. Most crime fiction isn’t actually true to life. People don’t run across murders or plots to destroy the world or incompetent cops all that often. In order to make is seem “real,” the author has to go the extra step to make it look like real people are inhabiting their books…warts and all.