Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Knocking You Out

By Steve Weddle

I get up from the barstool and walk to the back of the room, past the mirror so that I can describe myself to you, the reader, in a completely natural manner that you totally fall for.

I rub my scalp the way one might palm a basketball, which is my way of telling you that I am bald because basketballs do not have hair. I like to think of my baldness as a choice. It would not be a lie to say that age had caused me to have less hair than I once had, but what of it? The parcel of scalp once reserved for hair had, years ago, given itself over to emptiness. If I were clever I would perhaps say something about my hair deserting me about the time my wife did and provide a little more depth to my character, which should interest you. Instead, I will probably make a joke to you about my hair deserting me, leaving a desert of skin on my head. As you can tell, I am not terribly clever. I could, I suppose, devote a few hours of the afternoon -- what might amount to a parenthetical for you, the reader -- to researching desert people. Bedouins or whatever they are so that I could layer my descriptions like a $100 haircut. But I cannot. I do not have that luxury. For this story, as you have noted, is told in the present tense. Were I in a position to know what will transpire, what will have transpired by the time you are reading this, will have read this, I could luxuriate in cleverness. But as it is, I can only pause here at the mirror for a moment, palm my head to show you that I am bald, and linger for a moment on my face. Let’s do the eyes first.

They’re a rather dullish brown. But I would like for them to be blue. So let’s pretend that they are blue. Also, let’s imagine that I have a scar above my eye. Don’t ask what it is from. I won’t reveal that until a hundred pages in, though I’ll drop hints about some sort of darkness in my past.


Did you make it this far? Did all the nonsense send you running?

I've been giving some thought to what pulls a reader out of a story. I think it might be different stuff for each of us.

I hate that "look at myself in a passing car window so I can describe myself to you, the reader" stuff. Some folks don't care. Some folks find other stuff pretentious. I don't mind pretentious writing, as long as it doesn't pull me out of the story. 

The self-description stuff is tough, tough, tough to pull off. I'm not sure how you do it in first-person and make it seem real. Maybe you work it into the story so that it means something other than saying what color your hair is. I mean, I get that folks want the reader to have a picture of the character. I just don't know that it matters. Do I care that your main character is 5'10" instead of 6'? I dunno. Does it come up later? Is there A Clue that only a 6'5" person could reach? A half-eaten, top-shelf donut with teeth impressions?

I'm not a big fan of physical descriptions, I guess, unless it matters. So those, especially when they seem forced, pull me out of the story. Do I care that your character is bald? Are you trying to sell action figures? Do I care about your eye color? Should I?

A description of the character that first appears 100 pages after the character appears also bugs me. Um, he has three arms? No, he doesn't.

Forced description pulls me out.

Bogus historical details will kick my lovely bride out of a book. I'm not a fan of any old crap, so I don't have any examples here. But like some Victorian card game in a Regency-period novel. Or a "dance card" 100 years too early.

Poor proofreading will send us both to another book. Even the best books suffer from "it's/its" sometimes.

Awful figurative language. "The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant." or "She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up."

I'm talking about stories that I like, stories I want to read, not terrible stories I don't care about. 

Don't knock me out of your story for something trivial. Please.

What pulls you folks out of stories?


Anonymous said...

A big thing for me is characters acting stupid. I mean, stupid for the character. Most recent example was a Reacher book, where he's with his old team in LA. One of them gets an email with a coded message and they need to know a certain track on Jimi Hendrix's second album. This is a woman who seems to run a top notch security firm, carries around a laptop and uses email. And yet they trek down to a record store to find the album. I'm thinking, ok it's a set up for a fight. No such luck. They buy the CD and trek back to the hotel. And the way one of the bad guys racked his pistol, I nearly threw the book.

Al Tucher said...

Gray eyes. Who in real life has gray eyes? Okay, my color vision is a little hinky, but I've never seen them.

Steve Weddle said...

JB, Yeah. So often in books I'm thinking "why don't they just" do such and such -- you know, like call the cops.

AT, I think those people must be French.

David Kaufmann said...

Anything gratuitous. Jerrybloomfield already mentioned characters acting stupid for the character. Maybe gratuitous=stupid or stupid=gratuitous. Whether it's description, exposition, character, plot, action - I've put several books down because I just don't have patience for the excess. Also, I might lose interest in the characters; even if the story's compelling, I just don't care about this person any more. Finally, and this may just be a sub-category, pretentious writing. Joyce is not pretentious, so I'm not referring to "high-brow" writing. I mean books where style trumps story.

Steve Weddle said...

DK, I think those books that have pretentiousness masked as cleverness should be completely outlawed.

Anonymous said...

The suspension of the laws of physics or the laws of, well, laws. I'm reading along, things are fine, then somebody gets shot and the force of the bullet knocks them halfway across the room or some such bullshit. Bullets, even big ones, go through people and then the people fall down. Bullets don't make people fly through the air, not even shotgun blasts. But suppose the bullet goes through our hero, suppose he does fall down. And then he gets up and beats the shit out of his attacker. Or suppose you've got some cop that decides to beat the crap out of a suspect or witness or whomever because his thirst for justice has forced him to throw off the shackles of the law and color outside the lines. But he doesn't get suspended or brought up on charges or anything. You got people not just walking but RUNNING away from roll-over accidents, you got people getting hit in the head five or six times by 220 pound bikers and joking about it. You got people hitting someone in the head five or six times and they haven't broken their hands. Shit, I used to box. I broke my hand hitting some guy in the head once, wearing a boxing glove.

Victor Gischler said...

I like it when the force of a bullet knocks a character past a mirror so he can desribe himself in very figurative language. This should be mandatory for allthe novels.

Dana King said...

I'm with Jerry and Dan, with a small extra. I hate books where the "stakes are raised" by the main character having to decide between multiple courses of action, and he or she consistently chooses the option guaranteed to provide the worst possible outcome. People make mistakes, sure. but when it's so obvious even to the reader this is not the way to go, then don't go that way.

I've read books i wanted to like where I ended up rooting against the protag. Now I just quit reading when I reach that point, and my world is a better place.

Dan_Luft said...

One trick that is very popular at the moment is a first person story with third person interludes that usually star an underdeveloped bad guy.

I'm assuming that these parts are suggested by editors who want to sell a longer book and ask the author for some padding. I don't know, someone might think that this cat and mouse stuff builds suspense and it can in movies. But in books I'd prefer it to be all in first or third. Alternating the views feels like a crutch.

Every time I read a book that does this I begin to wonder if the book would've worked better dropping the third person narration and i think it usually would.

Tina Holmboe said...

"Several woman were waiting at the bus-stop"

The woman-women mistake blow my lid every time. Oddly enough you rarely see

"She had a hard time picking; several man in the line-up looked like her attacker".

The Liz said...

I'm a 'first chapter in the bookstore' reader. I'm really picky about the books I take home, so I'll read the first chapter in the store before I walk out with it.
Aside from too much exposition, what really snares me is if I can understand the character. I actually picked up Twilight to see if there was more to it than the anti-sparkles had led me to believe. I didn't make it past the first chapter.
Ho-hum Bella's life is so depressing, she chooses to move in with her Dad after her Mom remarries. She's displaced and a loner... blah, angst, ect. She was a cold fish. If they had led with a scene of action, of her showing her character rather than ladling out a character outline in exposition.
That same day, I read the first chapter of Charlaine Harris 'Dead Until Dark'. Sookie was a much more compelling character. Naive in the beginning, but full of potential.

For me that's the difference between a book I'll keep, a book that draws me in, and a book I won't fall into.

Steve Weddle said...

Dan, Lack of fallout amazes me. I mean, the story will have fallout, but it will be whatever fits the story. If it's too cumbersome to have the cop suspended, then they won't mention it. You're right. Nutty.

Dana, I get ya. I've rooted against the "good guy" in the book because he's a moron. It's weird.

Mr. Gischler, The shot sent me flying through the window. As I fell, I saw myself reflected in the glass shards -- gray eyes streaked with anger.

Dan, There's a John Corey book I think I liked. It's called LION'S GAME or something like that. Alternates nicely. Can't remember if it's straight third, though.

TinaH, Thankfully, I haven't run across that one. It would drive me batty.

TheLiz, I'm much more easily drawn into a book with a compelling character early on than with a ticking bomb.

Steve Weddle said...

Jamie, Yes yes yes. I often toss away a book, screaming "PEOPLE DON'T TALK LIKE THAT!"

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

Al Tucher: *I* have gray eyes. Sorry if that throws off your world-view.

What bugs me is unnecessary "driving around" scenes. It's the literary equivalent of filling time on CSI with a drawn-out musical montage of people running lab tests.

Al Tucher said...

I want proof. :-)

Lamar said...

I get annoyed when the author very clearly steps out from behind the narrator of the story because he has Something He Wants To Say.

Characters who behave in a manner completely inconsistent to the character that has been revealed to that point.

Stories that start at the wrong place.

Stories that don't end at the right place.

Authors who insist on spelling all right as "alright," and the editors who let them.

I could go on.

Dan G said...

When writers have a character take something "off of" something else, or get a "couple things" from somewhere, I get peeved. I don't care that these are widely (mis)used in spoken English uncertain parts of the world. It doesn't bother me when they're in dialogue. But when a writer, someone who should know better, uses them, it's disappointing,

Fortunately in the age of digital books, it's easy for me to just do a search & replace within my (DRM-stripped) Kindle books. Angst gone!

Cullen Gallagher said...

Introspective interludes, endless descriptions of rooms, physical details of characters -- all this bores me to tears. It makes for pretty sentences, but pretty sentences don't move a story forward. And they annoy the hell out of me as a reader.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Of course, Tom Piccirilli's "Every Shallow Cut" takes place largely inside the main character's head, and somehow I found that book absolutely riveting. So, I guess I'm full of shit. If someone can write as good as Piccirilli, they can write whatever the hell they want to and I'll read it.

Ron Dionne said...

That first comment about characters doing something stupid -- I struggle with that when it comes to horror movies. I would never, ever, ever, and I mean never (not even if there was a beautiful mirror beveled in just the right way to reduce my beer weight and general out-of-shape middleagedness; nice eyes, though, by way, I gotta admit, sort of a slate blue) go into the dark room at the top of the stairs, the one the strange noises are coming from, alone. Particularly if I'm a teenage babe in a tank top and panties (quick look to mirrow: whew). It's just so stupid. Yet I continue to watch the movies. Why? I dunnoh..