I’ve read a lot of crime novels over the past few weeks and I’ve also started writing the third book in the Tim Yates series. As a result, I’ve thought a lot about writing practices that I particularly dislike, including ones occurring in my own work before (and sometimes, I suspect, also after) I’ve revised it as ruthlessly as I can. Here is a list of ten of my ‘hates’.
- Over-use of the word ‘cheap’. The effectiveness of this adjective as shorthand to describe a character’s clothes and personal effects, and by extension his or her personality, has long since staled. A more specific word almost always works better: tawdry, poor, shoddy, flimsy, badly-made, ill-fitting, shabby, dingy or threadbare.
- Use of ‘here’ to denote the person standing next to the speaker, as in ‘Mrs Smith here,’ or ‘Detective Constable Jones here’. It’s almost become a convention in detective stories. Why? I’ve never heard anyone say it in real life.
- Over-striving for effect by the writer, resulting in sentences that are too long and made ungainly by too many subordinate clauses.
- Over-striving for effect by the writer, resulting in the expression of conflicting ideas, sometimes within the same sentence. For example, I’ve recently read in the same sentence that because it was market day, a restaurant was full and that the waitress moved quickly among the half-empty tables.
- Trotting out the same phrase or catchword time and again to describe the same character. All characters need to have traits and foibles which differentiate them and capture the reader’s imagination, but I’d suggest that you can’t get away with using exactly the same expression more than twice.
- The use of a particularly arcane or unusual word more than once, unless it is integral to the main plot or theme of the novel or is made to occur several times as a deliberate irony.
- Parading of knowledge, either by introducing whole paragraphs or even pages of the author’s unreconstructed research into the novel (authors who have researched medical practices and conditions seem particularly susceptible to this) or by the more casual dropping of the names of obscure artists and musicians or the titles of little-known art films or pieces of music into descriptive passages for the sake of it. It has the unfortunate effect of seeming to chalk up a score against the reader. “The view resembled a sky-scape from the later blue period of the early twentieth-century Argentinian Cubist painter Mazzo Prisellio.”
- Making several different characters repeatedly use the same common phrase or exclamation. ‘Of course.’ (Guilty!) ‘My God!’ ‘Actually…’
- Changing a minor character’s name mid-novel. I’ve mentioned this one before, partly because I know I’m particularly guilty of it, partly because I’ve encountered it in the work of other writers so many times.
- Weakening descriptive passages too many times by using tentative words that dilute the impact: perhaps, rather, possibly, a little, maybe.
Apologies for sounding curmudgeonly! It’s a long time since I’ve read a book that I couldn’t finish, but these minor flaws tend to have a disproportionate effect on the reader’s enjoyment of the novel… or on this reader’s enjoyment, at least. That’s why I thought it might be helpful to list them.