My biggest pet peeve? That I’ve lost that sense of adventure that I got while reading as a teen. I can hardly read a story now where I don’t see the author typing on the other side of the page. I know, I know, that’s not really what the topic is about, but it’s still rather annoying. It’s also a common refrain among authors. As we learn more how stories work, we’re more apt to notice things that can knock us right out of a story.
And if it’s this way for us, imagine how it is for editors. They read way more stories than I do, and they see all the nasty roots that reach up and trip the young writer all too often. They’re attuned to those things so keenly that (I imagine) they have to work overtime just to stay in some stories that they feel show promise.
The moral of the story, I suppose, is to remove all those exposed roots before handing the story to the editor. Easier said than done, I know.
My pet peeves? I guess I’ll throw a few of them out there. I don’t often find these in finished novels, but rather in stories that I’ve critiqued or slushed over the years.
My first pet peeve would be starting in the wrong place. This is such an easy trap to fall into, and it comes in two flavors: either the author starts too early, or they start too late. When you start too early, you have all sorts of flabby writing to read through before you get to the actual story. This type of failure often comes from the author wanting to fill in the details of the world or the characters before they get to the inciting incident. It’s a natural tendency, and I’ve certainly fallen prey to it in the past.
All I can urge the author to do is to think about movies they’ve seen where we’re dropped right at the cusp of the story. The best movies start with the proverbial stone at the top of the hill, ready to roll down, and as the story moves on, the stone picks up pace until it’s rumbling and roaring toward the finish. In novels, we’re allowed a little (but not that much) more freedom to ease into a story. In short stories, you really want to try to drop the reader into the action and force them to catch up.
On the flip side, think about those long, boring stories you here from that one friend. You know, the one that tells you about the time, at the place with the thing, and they drone on and on about the tiny minutia that lead up to the actual story. We love them, but sometimes we just want to strangle them and tell them to get to the fucking point. This is what it feels like sometimes reading stories that start too early. I’m looking at the pages, looking at the clock, looking at the pages again, wondering when things are going to kick into gear. Don’t fall into this trap. Be honest and figure out where the story really begins, and start it as close to that point as possible.
Now, the reverse of this is starting the story too late. The author has started the tale somewhere in the middle of things. To a degree, this is fine. It’s much more common for the author to start too early than to start too late, and often starting beyond the story’s inciting incident will be forgiven by the reader. But if you start too late, you’ll be forced to crowbar all sorts of clumsy exposition into the story that at some point will just get in the way. The reader will feel too far behind. They’ll feel like they’re drowning, and eventually they’ll just toss the book across the room.
Another pet peeve is dialogue tags. Sometimes authors will slip into the mode of “he said, she said,” constantly using direct attributions to make clear to the reader who’s speaking. It’s all well and good to remind the reader who’s talking, but if you don’t watch out you’ll fall into talking heads syndrome.
Coupled with this problem is the fact that authors will fail to refresh the setting. Better writers will combat both of these problems by using physical beats in place of speaker attributions. Physical beats are bits of a character’s physical action, and if used well it will have the character interact with the setting in some way to keep it fresh in the reader’s mind. Setting, and the characters’ places within it, is a constantly fading image that must be refreshed to keep it alive in the reader’s mind.
If you’ll forgive the use of my own writing, here’s a part of a scene from The Winds of Khalakovo where the protagonist, Nikandr, is off to buy a grub that he’s heard will help his sister, who has contracted a wasting disease.
After filing the document back into the sheaf of papers in the same location as before, Aleksei shuffled them neatly together and regarded Nikandr. “If there’s nothing else, My Lord?”
“Actually, there is,” Nikandr said, pausing for effect. “There’s been word, Aleksei, that you traffic in certain goods.”
“Goods, My Lord?” Aleksei’s face remained composed, but the skin along the top of his balding head flushed.
Nikandr leaned forward. “I’m not here in an official capacity, Aleksei.”
Aleksei’s eyes thinned and his eyebrows pulled together for one brief moment, but then he leaned back into his burgundy leather chair with a look of understanding. “Your sister?”
Nikandr nodded. “She has time yet, but the final stages approach.”
“There are several unguents I might recommend, but—”
“I’m here for the grubs. You have two, do you not?”
Aleksei tried—and failed—to hide his surprise. “I-I do, but they are more effective in the early stages of the disease.”
“Let me worry about that.”
Aleksei sat higher in his chair. “My Lord, they’re both spoken for.”
“I’m sure you’ll find more.” Aleksei looked defeated, but it was only an act. Nikandr knew how shrewd he was. And how greedy. “I could make arrangements, but my patrons, the ones who were promised the grubs, will be arriving tomorrow. I can only imagine their anger.”
“The price, Aleksei.”
“Two-thousand.” Nikandr paused, allowing the figure to sit in the cool air between them.
“They’re worth eight-hundred. No more.”
“A year ago, da, but times have changed. We have become more desperate.”
“Twelve-hundred, Aleksei. That is all I will pay.”
“And I’ll ensure,” Nikandr said, sitting back, “that my brother’s men steer wide of the Master’s office.”
I’ve used only two direct attributions, but the scene still plays out well because I use physical beats often to indicate to the reader who’s speaking. Note that you have some leeway to drop the attributions altogether from time to time. You’ll want to save these for when you want the dialogue to move sharply back and forth, so timing is important here.
The last pet peeve I’ll note is that of failing to introduce tension and to keep it high throughout the story. People will often hear me use the phrase, “tension on every page,” and I really live by it with my writing. That’s not to say that I want ridiculous amounts of action on every page. I don’t. But I do want the pages to drip with mystery and intrigue and suspense and sexual tension and, yes, action. There are plenty of types of tension, and it would do you well to layer your story with several types, moving between them as the story dictates, to keep reader interest high from beginning to end.
And consider this: many, many more stories have been rejected because they have too little tension than those that have too much. It’s actually really hard to have too much tension. Our natural tendency is to slow down, to explain, and sometimes, to be overly nice to our characters, and it shows up quickly on the page. Surely there have been times where you’ve found yourself wanting to skim through books? Or you feel like nothing happens for dozens, sometimes hundreds of pages? Those are the pages with little to no tension. It might be nice writing, but it’s certainly not keeping you up at night, is it?
Make your characters suffer, in one way or another. Put them into difficult situations, whether it’s stealing into the underground lair of their nemesis or working themselves up to steal their first kiss. And when you do, you’ll find that the story will read much faster, and that you’ll still be able to layer it with whatever nuance and tone you were shooting for.