Shaken Author Syndrome

Old enemy, New victim - by Tony Matelli

Maybe it would be better to title this post – The Things Other Authors Do That Make Me Want to Grab Them and Shake Them.

Quick disclaimer – it is not my intention in this post to lessen the importance of shaken syndromes and rest assured, no authors were shaken during the process of this writing.

A writer reviewing the work of other writers is on shaky ground. I admit that I don’t read the way I used to before I had struggled through the many hours it has taken to plan, write, revise and edit two novels. But when I read with reviewing in mind, I try to read as a reader, not a writer. I think about the genre the author has listed the book under and I read with that context in mind. I don’t expect a romance to be a literary novel or a thriller to be a comedy.

Though I’ve said this before, I think it bears repeating. I would never claim any kind of expert status as a writer. But I’ve been reading novels since I was eleven years old and I do feel I’m as close to being an expert reader as I’ll ever be.

So – lengthy preamble or what? What follows is an abridged list of the rants that have never made it into my reviews. I either don’t review the book because I can’t give it four or five stars on Amazon or I let a particular rant go because the book turns out to be so much more than that one thing.

Getty Villa - Bruce Witzel photo

Okay, here goes. The use of an unusual word – use it once and I’m thinking, oh, that’s fresh and new. Use it twice and you’ve disturbed the flow of my reading. Use that word a third time and watch out. I really want to shake you.

Then there is the case of endless pages of dialogue written phonetically to resemble a particular dialect. I get that you want to set a tone. I get that people speak a certain way. Give me a taste of it; go ahead and set the scene with a broad brush stroke. But please, for the love of all that is sacred in writing, do not slap me in the face with this stuff. Or, you guessed it, get over here so I can shake you.

A big rant of mine is irrelevant (to the story) bits and pieces that are clearly the author’s agenda jammed into his or her characters’ mouths. It’s the writer’s job to make the reader believe that every single thing a character says fits with who that character is. I don’t have to like what a character says but I better be able to believe those words would come from that character’s mouth. If not, right – you know the drill – let me shake you.

Information dumps can come in other forms and are no more acceptable to me. Like the chunk of irrelevant material that drops smack dab in the middle of story like a piece of space debris. There was this book I read a while ago. Out of the blue an entire chapter on dog breeding was wedged into the narrative. What the heck – come on over here and let me give you a good shake.

Then there is endless repetition. I read a book in which the author told me so many times in the first chapter that the main character was tired, I thought I would fall asleep myself. How about you just give yourself a shake on that one?

Montreal Metro2

Point of view issues can be problematic. I’ve had a couple of reviews of my books that said my style of writing, with multiple point-of-view characters, results in a complicated and at times fractured narrative. Fair enough. I want the lens focused from a number of directions. But it’s my job to make darn sure that readers are aware of whose point of view they’re reading. Head hopping within paragraphs is a big no-no. Throwing in a sentence that indicates the internal feelings or thoughts of an obviously non-point-of-view character is bad form. Writing an entire book from one person’s point-of-view and then adding in a paragraph or two that switches things up – no, no, no. Do not do this, unless of course you want a good shake.

I don’t want to forget to mention my rant about the police procedural in which the author introduced me to a serial killer and then described this maniac’s crime over and over and over. I get that serial killers kill multiple times. I get that serial killers use the same MO, but seriously? Do you really want to write that grisly scene time and time again? I’ll tell you one thing – I don’t want to read it again and again. Figure out a way to make it fresh or guess what? A good shake is coming your way.

Picasso - Head of Satyr - Bruce Witzel - photoLet’s talk about the likeability of characters. There are no rules that say an author has to write likeable characters. Believable – yes, but likeable – not necessarily. You’re taking a risk, though, if you go out of your way to make your main character totally irritating by repeating and elaborating every bad habit, picky phobia, and selfish trait they possess. I can only take so much of this before I am convinced that you want me to detest this person. After that happens, don’t ask me to feel sympathy for this character’s fate because if you do – that’s right – here comes a good shake.

And another thing about your characters – if you decide to write an elaborate description of a character, tell me what this person thinks and feels and cares about and then you kill this character off after the first chapter – what can I say? Unless this person is coming back as a ghost, shake, shake, shake.

A word about words – they matter. The English language is chock full of words. Have you ever glanced through a Roget’s Thesaurus? That book is thick. Given the number of words a writer has to choose from, answer me this question, please. What were you thinking when you used the same word repeated in every one of your first three sentences? And I’m not talking the regular, run-of-the-mill words that I expect will be repeated. I mean something like using the word freighter three times in a row. I can’t really give you a shake because I didn’t bother to finish your book.

Alright, already. Enough is enough. I’ve ranted on and if you’re still with me, I thank you for your endurance.

Bruce Witzel Photo

Here’s your chance to weigh-in. Though of course you would never give into such a base emotion – what makes you want to shake an author?

62 comments on “Shaken Author Syndrome

  1. diannegray says:

    Oh, fabulous post, Francis! There are so many thing i want to say about this.

    For a start, I really believe authors should be very careful using words like ‘tired’. Words provide us with feelings and if I start reading a novel and I see the word ‘tired’ I get tired! It may sound weird, but it’s so very true. Bored is another one word I dislike when I’m reading a novel.

    The particular dialogue issue is also a pet peeve of mine. It’s too hard to read something totally different from what you’re used to. I used to like D.B.C Pierre’s writing until I read Ludmila’s Broken English and it seriously contained so much ‘broken English’ I couldn’t understand what was being said and therefore couldn’t finish it.

    Agenda is another pet peeve. If the story isn’t about using animals as test subjects there is no use having a character provide a two page diatribe about it.

    Likability of characters – we have to ‘care’ about characters and what happens to them. We even have to care about what is coming to the most evil of characters (even though we don’t like them, we still have an emotional investment in them).

    Tweeting this post now I’ve had my rant. Keep up the great work! 😀

  2. Wordspace. This may be nit picky, but wordspace drives me crazy. It’s when an author uses the same word (not common like an article or conjunction…something like “frightfully” or “happy”) too often on the same page. Just makes me cringe. 🙂

    • I hear you on that one. I can often catch a lot of these repetitions by reading my work out loud, over and over. But I never get all of it and that is where a good editor becomes essential.

  3. smilecalm says:

    i’m amazed when any word
    that seems to match what i’m trying to say
    comes to mind, so i type it out
    hoping someone else will have
    a little understanding and clarity 🙂

  4. Gallivanta says:

    Your ‘rant’ emphasizes the importance of having a good editor! You are brave to review. You are brave to write. I would find both a struggle.

    • I couldn’t agree more on the need for a good editor and not just one who will make sure all the sentences are right, the grammar is proper and the typos have been fixed. I’ve ranted on about all of the things I mention in this post for books that were well-written. What is needed is a content editor who can root out problems in structure, word usage, consistency etc. I don’t think all writers understand the differences between various types of editing and the need for each one. Oh, thanks for thinking I’m brave 🙂

  5. Yolanda M. says:

    Great post Francis 🙂 I’m in agreement with you on all points. My pet peeve has to be (as you mentioned) an author choosing to use an unusual word and next thing you know it pops up in every chapter.

    • thanks, Yolanda. I know, I know – it’s almost as if the writer got stuck, somehow. Maybe became enamoured by the sound of a word or the feel of typing it. Who knows?

  6. jennypellett says:

    Great post here Francis. I’d shake along with you on all of your points. Repetition is one of the worst offenders – single repeated words leap off the page after a while and become a major irritation. The word ‘vitrine’ kept popping up in an otherwise fascinating book I read a few weeks ago – I was ready to hunt the author down and bash him over the head with his book.
    While we can blame authors for these glaring errors I do think that editors should shoulder some of the responsibility. It’s up to them to check for flow, continuity as well as grammatical and typographical mistakes. So often stories are ruined by shoddy editing.

    • Thanks, Jenny, for plugging the use of a good content editor much better than I just did in an above comment. Good editing is definitely more than proof-reading. And here’s another question that has just occurred to me – how honest does it pay an editor to be. If you’re looking for a repeat clientele, how brutal can you afford to me? In the world of self-publishing and pay as you go, I think it gets harder and harder to find someone who will offer a balanced take on one’s work. Lots to think about and I think I feel another post coming on.

      • jennypellett says:

        That’s a valid point – one expects an editor to be honest and therefore potentially brutal. I think I’d want to be challenged on historical continuity – ie, have I done my research in enough depth before constructing my plot: does my imagined timeline pan out when put before a wider audience for scrutiny. Because it irks me when an author mentions a world event, for instance, in the course of their story and then further into the tale we realise that the world event did not take place in the story time frame – I’d want an editor to make me check every single detail, even if it meant that some serious re-writing was called for.
        How we employ someone to edit our work is a whole other question – trust and a similar outlook probably helps.
        This is a really interesting one, Francis!

        • I agree – potentially brutal but in the kindest possible way 🙂 Definite yes on historical continuity and even seemingly insignificant things like consistent spellings of names, places and words that can legitimately be spelled a few ways. I suppose how we choose the editor, like many things in life, will be a buyer beware type of thing.

  7. Rosie Amber says:

    Really great posts and lots of points for authors to be aware of.

    • Thanks, Rosie. From the comment stream, I can tell I’ve struck a chord with readers and reviewers. Writing is a difficult craft to master and we are all just learners of that curve. But I must admit, it did feel good to let go with the rant.

  8. Reblogged this on A Woman's Wisdom and commented:
    Great rant from Francis here…made me smile 🙂

  9. clareweiner says:

    Haven’t time to read everyone’s comments right now – but I can add that what drives me most nuts is cliches. Cliches of plot, but especially cliches like for example ‘her crisp white shirt’, ‘he put on a crisp white shirt’ – you sometimes get it more than once in the same novel! Also silly things like eyes dropping to the floor etc. It’s just bad writing. I laugh of course, but I also think less of the author. It’s get-roundable – but for these writers, it is like they have a keyboard which they can hit and the phrase types itself! I also dislike long descriptions which are ‘flowery’.
    Otherwise,I think I’m pretty tolerant: as writer, I know it’s not the easiest thing – and I would hate to write for a publisher who needed a novel a year from me!

    • Yes indeed, Clare – the clichés are often laughable and that does lead to less respect for the writer. Not something any of us want from our readers. If you get a chance check out the link to Terry Tyler’s post below in the comment stream. Spot on about clichés. I, too, strive to be a tolerant reader because I know how hard the writing process is. But every now and then, I just have to let it rip on what has got my goat.

  10. jenanita01 says:

    Reblogged this on AnitaJayDawes and commented:
    makes you think about your writing in a whole new way…

  11. Terry Tyler says:

    Great post – and I so agree with Claire, above. I wrote a post about plot cliches, myself – let me know if you want to read it, it got quite a lot of reaction! Oh, what the hell – here it is!

    • I really appreciate that you supplied the link to your post, Terry. I popped over to read and comment. As I said over on your blog, the list of plot clichés is especially helpful and I appreciated the way you made it clear that none of this stuff is set in stone. Sure, we should try to root out the clichés in narrative and plot but every now and then, when we are totally aware of the reason we’re doing something – it words and we should keep it. Thanks for reading my post and taking the time to comment. Hope we are able to connect in the blogosphere again soon.

  12. Norah says:

    I agree with all of those of course, and would add use of “big” (obscure) words just for the sake of it, especially more than two in the same sentence or paragraph. If I can’t follow the meaning without a dictionary or requiring some mind-reading powers to interpret the intention – I’m out of there!

    • The issue of obscure words is a good one, Norah. Now and then, I’m tickled by coming across a word I don’t know the meaning of, especially with the advent of Kindle reading and being able to access the built-in dictionary. But using ‘big’ words just for the sake of using ‘big’ words – shake, shake, shake. A common object is just that – no need to look for twenty fancy-dancy words to say it. A door is a door is a door. But speaking of doors – my editor asked me to consider, in the nicest way, the number of times I had people slamming out of doors. Quite the eye-opener, that. Suffice to say, way too often. Thanks for stopping by, Norah.

      • Norah says:

        I certainly agree with learning new words – increasing one’s vocabulary is always fun! It’s the intentional obfuscation I object to! It slams the door shut on comprehension. I’d be interested to know how your solved the slamming door problem. 🙂

        • On the slamming door issue – I used that neat ‘find’ feature on word to identify every instance and then went through them ruthlessly asking myself a couple of questions – would this character actually slam out a door? Is slamming out a door necessary for this scene? Am I using the slamming out of a door as a way to express something that could be better expressed in a less redundant way? In the end, I discovered that running out and slamming a door was probably my way of dealing with conflict more than my characters – though one or two of them still do it now and then.

  13. Excellent points, and I see these elements way too often, unfortunately.

    As for overuse of certain words, I always think of Faulkner using the word “myriad” about 90 times in one book. I wonder if he was trying to make some kind of point…

    • Ah, Faulkner. I took an American lit. course years ago that had, Light in August, on the reading list. I floundered along through that book and what my uninitiated self deemed to be Faulkner’s misogynistic plodding. But in the end, like many before me, his writing slipped under my skin. With a writer like Faulkner, it wouldn’t surprise me that all 90 uses of the word myriad were intentional.

  14. I shake your hand on this one! My main peeve is head-hopping, it drives me nuts. Some people even do it mid-sentence…

    • Thanks for that shake, Anna. Unregulated head-hopping is a lazy way to get information to the reader. 99% of the time the information is not needed anyway and for that other 1% – well, what can I say? Writers simply have to find another way of getting it out there or that old shake is a coming.

  15. Great list! Thanks for the laughs!

    I shake my own head a tiny bit: I think you meant “phonetically” and not “grammatically” in the rant about writing too much in a dialect.

    Best to you,


  16. Excellent post, Fran! I agree with all of your shakes. I don’t like is when a character, who is just passing through and has no significance to the story, is given a name. The last thing I want to do is try and keep track of 20 different names when only 2 or 3 will be around for the duration.
    Another thing that drives me bananas…I don’t eat desert, I eat dessert!

    • Oh, Jill, that thing about the names reminds of one of the first self-published books I read as a way of doing research into the phenomenon and seeing if I thought I could self-publish. It was a police procedural and it read like a police report with endless names of suspects and witnesses complete with last known locations, Cities and States. My mind literally boggled and I swear not more than three of these names belonged to a main characters. And I’ll have to watch the desert/dessert thing. But then again, this is why I have a great editor.

  17. Roy McCarthy says:

    Very good Fran. My pet hate is losing track of who is speaking in a dialogue string. It ought to be obvious so the reader doesn’t need to go back a dozen lines to check. Too much dialogue from totally differing characters is identical in tone.
    +1 on good editors and beta readers who can usually spot stuff that the writer just cannot see through over-familiarity.

    • Oh gosh, Roy, I hear you on that one – very, very irritating. In my own writing, I tend to go the other direction and insert way too many he saids and she saids and various other dialogue tag-ins like part way through a piece of conversation breaking it up to say so-and-so scratched her head or something like that. A lot gets weeded out but geez, authors need to direct the reader in such a way that staying in the flow of the story is effortless. Anything that breaks the flow for the reader often equals irritation and, you guessed it, the desire to give the author a shake.

  18. Here…let me help you give hand out some of those shakes…! My biggest shakes would be given for irrelevant dialog bleeding the life from a potentially exciting scene:

    “David, Hi!”

    “Hi, Melba.”

    “Nice to see you, David. I’ve been thinking about you. How are you holding up since your
    grandma jumped off that bridge?”

    “Well as can be expected. The wife’s been a big help…sending thank you notes for all the casseroles our neighbors brought over. Thinking about it now, it was knowing Gran initially survived the plummet that hurts the most.”

    “Yeah, David. Who would have expected a shark to be passing at just that moment?”

    “Not me, Melba.”

    “Me either, David. Quite a shock. And you mentioned your gran couldn’t swim?”

    “Not really. Not all that fast, Melba.”

    “Poor dear didn’t have a chance, did she?”

    “Nope. Well…nice seeing you. Say hello to Charlie for me. You two should come by for supper sometime.”

    “Thanks, David. We will. You take care.”


    • clareweiner says:

      Mmm: typical 1st draft content, the kind that you (ie you, I, and anyone else who edits properly and is wise to this being boring!) delete once you really get into that scene, and know what it’s about … it’s a shame some people are in too much of a hurry to publish that they don’t take out the ‘overly-reality’ stuff.

      • Exactly, Clare – the overly-reality stuff must go. As I reader, I don’t want to be subjected to a page of details on how a character goes about getting ready for work. I’m thick into a first draft of current W.I.P. and I feel myself writing stuff like that but I know it is more for me than the reader and in later drafts it will be slash, slash, slash for that stuff.

    • Hi Carrie Ann, thanks for stopping by to read and comment and give me a good laugh with this (silly) detailed bit of dialogue. The essential, dramatic message totally lost in inane drivel. I agree – shake, shake, shake. As I said, in a comment to Clare, too bad the author didn’t slash, slash, slash.

  19. clareweiner says:

    Amazing how much this has generated in comments! I’m beginning to think we authors are very picky readers – and to wonder if non writers are the same?

  20. jackiemallon says:

    Hah! I’m shaking…but with laughter (at least I hope that’s what it is!) 😀

    I hate movie style dialogue–cheap throwaway stuff along these lines:

    “Hey dude?”
    “I just got fired.”
    “Huh? You mean…?
    “Man, that blows.”

    In fact any character that responds to something with “What?” or “Huh?” has lost my interest.

    I skim over huge chunks because I know I am gaining nothing insightful.

    Cliches are also bad–but a little like roaches in NYC, difficult to avoid. Diligence is certainly required to ensure I don’t’ fall prey to a stock phrase by accident. I hoover over my writing like a cleaning lady with a can of Raid and I always find some.

    Great post!

    • Thanks, Jackie. I love that imagery – hoovering over the work like a cleaning lady with a can of raid. Delightful. But that is exactly what we have to do because clichés and other things just creep in. I hear you on the cheap, throwaway dialogue. I read a book a while ago where the writer described how a husband proposed to his wife and in the middle of this beautifully set up scene the author relates the contents of the picnic lunch the couple had – and I’m not talking champagne and chocolate dipped strawberries here. Ham sandwiches, pickles and potato salad. Way to break the mood 🙂

  21. Lynn Robb says:

    You hit on a particular peeve of mine in shake #3. Absent the dogma, “Atlas Shrugged” would have made a great 300 page novel.

    • There is definitely a lot of chaff in that there wheat. And that goes for all of us, I’m sure. One must be dedicated to weed the nonessentials out of the story. Thanks for dropping by, Lynn.

  22. dex says:

    “…endless pages of dialogue written phonetically to resemble a particular dialect.”

    YES! I’m muddling through Cloud Atlas right now. While I love the story, this exact dynamic is taking from my ability to read at anything that resembles a normal speed and it’s annoying me. A lot.

    And on the likability of characters, I agree. As a writer, I try to make even my villains likable to a degree. If I don’t like my characters, I don’t want to write about them.

    • With the characters, it really comes down to making them human, enabling the reader to relate – in real life it is incredibly rare to meet a totally bad guy or gal. And this is also true of a totally flawless person. Everyone is a mix. One of my goals in writing is to challenge the idea of good and bad – such subjective terms.

      • dex says:

        I’ll agree with that, too. My favorite heroes are flawed. My favorite villains have some redeeming quality, even if unrealized. That complexity makes them more real.

  23. Gwen Stephens says:

    I see from the comment stream that you’ve touched a nerve here, Fran. Way to go! I try not to read like a writer, but damn, it’s hard! I guess what gets my goat is when poorly written novels go on to become runaway best sellers. So my issue is more with the publishing industry, I suppose. Manuscripts are read through the “how well will this one sell” lens. There have been more than a few of these in recent years, and since I can be a shameless bandwagon jumper, I usually pick up a hot best seller just to see what all the fuss is about. I’m thrilled for any author who can go from Nobody to the top of the New York Times list — it’s a fantasy I’m sure every writer has entertained at some point — but when underneath the truckloads of money and film rights there’s a poorly written novel (with many of the offenses you’ve enumerated above), it really ticks me off. Especially when there are so many well written novels out there that deserve to be read by a wide audience.

    • clareweiner says:

      Gwen, excellent point: the trade best-sellers, the ones which are quite obviously poorly written but introduce some new thing (for example, how near pornographic can a mainstream fiction novel go…) which is calculated to catch millions of readers and make money – these can so often be very bad examples of writing indeed. They used to be the ‘penny dreadfuls’ now they are the chart-toppers.

    • I do sometimes wonder about the celebrity-hype machine that can propel mediocre work to fame. And I’m sure that all who toil in obscurity comfort themselves by saying things like – quality will out in the end, readers will decide, crappy books won’t keep selling. But I think we all know those things probably aren’t true in the real world. What gets me about the situation you are describing is that the books with all the hype have no excuse to have a single offense with the access they have to a bevy of editors of all varieties and stripes. Of course, nothing can change a sow’s ear to a silk purse and if the story is poor, what can one do? I must say I have enjoyed the interaction on this post. Great to chat with everyone on this topic.

      • clareweiner says:

        I just think, ‘Celebs’ already have plenty of publicity and people who know about them, etc, do they really need to produce books, thus pushing hard working, creative authors out off the shelves? Esp. if their books are ghost-written. Of course I see that this will make money for publishing firms but …

  24. P. C. Zick says:

    Good rant. I’ve wanted to write one of my own for a long time. You’ve touched on many of mine. I rant about dialogue and dialect quite frequently.

    • Nothing like a good, old rant to clear the air. Now back to reading with an open mind. And writing with an awareness of the type of things that drive readers crazy 🙂

  25. Yes…I agree with all of your points and good for you for being so focused as to pinpoint them so clearly.

    I definitely read differently now and in a way, it has tainted my enjoyment of sitting down with a book for pleasure, but it is obviously easier to read peacefully without these distractions on any level.

    • I go back and forth – thinking I’ve changed and then thinking what I read has changed. Before self-publishing, I had never read (knowingly) a self-published book. I mostly read award winning fiction put out by big name publishers. It was only in very rare cases that I ran across any of the points I’ve spelled out in this blog. I’m not saying all those award winning books were the greatest stories (though most were), but as a reader, I wasn’t caught up in the kind of snags we’ve talked about in this post.

  26. […] breaking more than a few of those rules that I said (in a post not too long ago) make me want to grab an author and shake him or her or even my own mother. Other times, I couldn’t stop flipping just to find out what might happen […]

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