even if i kill a murderer with their own very sword, i am -nevertheless- a murderer, too.
~Katya Mills, murder by memory IV
Some of the pet peeves I have as a writer are below. You may note the quote above from the terrific Katya Mills, and its relevance may or may not become apparent in the course of this post, virulent with hypocrisy as it is.
I was prompted to write this post by Larysia Woropay, a marvelous Canadian poet and author, as part of her bloghop on pet peeves. Larysia Writes is her presence, where you will find her own writerly pet peeves.
I think Larysia’s poems have a dash of William Blake or John Milton, and touches of the Ancient Greek playwrights and mythology, typically with today’s science thrown into the mix. Her flash fiction – often containing twists – and her poetry tweets are worth checking out too.
She has two longform work-in-progress-eez (that’s plural for “novels what she’s writing”) which are ready to be published tomorrow – and she’s seeking agents for both.
Lucidity is set in part in a dreamscape that converges with the reality of main character Brea (think Freud, then think astral planes and celestial war). Extrasensory features Quinn, a teenage medium who has inherited the talent for spirity communication from her family. She and her raggle-taggle bunch of misfit school pals and frenemies must find out why the people of her hometown are becoming fairy-tale monsters before she becomes one herself.
And now on to my writers’ pet peeves:
PEEVE 1: LACK OF IMAGINATION
An aspiring fantasy writer once told me he was reluctant to write about his character’s werewolf transformation because he didn’t know how to approach it. My response was something like “You’re a writer. You’ve suffered from cramps in your stomach? That’s the first sensation your lycanthrope gets.”
There’s an old anecdote about Olivier and Hoffman (in Marathon Man), and they’re sprinting into a shot, and they’re both heaving and out of breath. And before the take,
Hoffman’s been running on the spot, and doing push-ups so that he looks like a sweaty wreck. After the take, Hoffman turns to Olivier and asks him how he managed to look so wheezy too. Olivier says “Acting, my boy.” (The same story – which is completely made up – has been attributed to Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin (in The Edge)).
The point is: You’re a writer? Fricken WRITE it.
I’ve been criticised for characters – for example – with similar interests to mine. I’ve criticised others for basing their fiction more on the reality of their lives than is necessary, and of course I write the same way and have been criticised for the same. Yes, we should write about what we know, but don’t shy away from werewolf transformations.
Not enough credit is given to writers whose prose is so wonderful that it could be harvested for maxims, or whose imaginative capacity so strong that you’re asking if these things actually happened in history, when it’s made up.
Other idiot authors might share yarns from the mouthpieces of their guru characters, about scorpions and frogs trying to cross rivers, or post about Laurence Olivier telling a younger actor to try acting.
So if I’m recycling BS about Olivier and Hoffman, or discussing drowning frogs and scorpions – and you’re coming up with material that would be as universally appreciated as an old fable, except it’s mostly out of your head – then my hat is off.
PEEVE 2: CULTURAL THEFT (WHICH I AM SORT OF “FOR”)
With respect to the imagination, I take issue with charges of cultural misappropriation – most of the time. Each piece of literature should be judged on its merits. If my work is terrible, charges of cultural hijacking might then be leveled. Throw the book at me.
I could be charged with misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, and more. And it’s even worse than that with my writing. I hope I’m not any of these things, but if you find a STORY xenophobic, then don’t shoot the messenger.
Is it fair to make any such charges against any writers, about any of their fiction? It’s FICTION. It should challenge and offend as well as entertain. I’d rather be offended by a piece of writing from someone else than not moved at all. We’re just telling stories.
But if your main character is some sick, fat, disabled slut, and you are not, and you do a good job representing this deaf-blind lesbian diabetic prostitute, then that is a commendable artistic and imaginative achievement. Or vice versa, I have to stress! Or vice versa, if you want to portray this person negatively.
Because FICTION! There should be no line in the sand. If you put a line in the sand, good for you – and again, hats off to you for placing these limitations.
Where do you draw this line? You can bake a cake, but only a qualified chef ought to write kitchen-based novels, Shirley. What’s that? You’re gonna use your JUDGMENT? Can everyone use this same standard of judgment? Or do you get to make the ruling coz of your part-time job as a Supreme Court Justice?
Magneto was borne of the Holocaust, and Iron Man built his first suit in a post 9-11 cave full of terrorists. Comic book adaptations. Oh the humanity. Yet they’re characters in enjoyable blockbusters full of action and fun.
Just write well. There’s your line.
PEEVE 3: BOOKS ON WRITING AND WRITING ON WEED
Wait till you hear the hypocrisy of this peeve:
I currently struggle with the complications of a plot in a work-in-progress.
Now, I’m not saying all writing advice is bad, or that I couldn’t be aided in my endeavours by feeding stuff into software. But who’s writing your story? MS Word’s Thesaurus? The magical Wheel of Descriptive Emotions? That book of writing advice, where you’re told exactly how bereavement can lead to guilt and depression, or an urge to live your life as a reckless party animal who enjoys every moment?
I only want to know what “mirroring” is, or how to build suspense, IN MY GUT!
I KNOW I sound like Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I know that. In my gut.
But you want to talk about hinges? I’m thinking furniture and doors.
And cogently argued crits notwithstanding – really, there are always exceptions – I’d rather not KNOW where my “second act” should kick in, or my pivvy divot points, or how all my hero’s motivations ought to be explicitly laid bare by the 28.27 percent mark.
That is NOT writing – that is painting by numbers.
If I have learned this stuff while honing my craft, that is a terrible indictment of [COUNTS ON FINGERS] at least nine things.
This is the Hollywood formula everyone decries, the reason they churn out sequels and reboots instead of new stuff. And it’s never a level playing field – someone who doesn’t look up synonyms will be at a disadvantage to me. I’ll be at a disadvantage to somebody who feeds their plot into some Faustian software contraption.
People who drink coffee might be better off than those who don’t; people who start the day with a few whiskeys or a draught of laudanum to take the edge off might be accessing their creativity in ways that the soberminded find difficult, and weedsmokers who fire up the engine might write some incredible stuff under the influence.
But ALL of that – the software, the thesauruseseses, the drugs – is writer steroids. You’re a cheater. I’m a cheater. I refer you back to the quote from Katya Mills at the top.
PEEVE 4: MATTERS OF OPINION, AND NOT BEING GOOD ENOUGH – OR OTHERS NOT BEING GOOD ENOUGH – AND SELF-BELIEF
Some writers might feel they are better scribes than I am – and they’re right. Not all of them are right. Others will be completely dismissive of the work of others, or hold fellow scribes to a standard they don’t hold to themselves. I am guilty of it.
You expect a writer to be as emotionally intelligent as her characters: But a good writer is often as arrogant or insecure as the pop star who doesn’t want the roadies to look at him when he comes to the dress rehearsal.
Poor writers can be insightful in their comments on your work. Poor writers can be great critics. But great writers can be terrible critics – is it because they feel they’re better?
In terms of emotional intelligence, for every Maya Angelou, there’s a VS Naipaul (who’s said to be a bit of a twat). I’ve been screamed at by egomaniacs, and mildly trolled by people whose work I’ve supported when perhaps I shouldn’t have. Everyone has enough kerrap to deal with.
You can inadvertently determine the skill level of another scribe in the same way that you might discover the innumeracy of a toddler. You’re counting pennies together. “One, two, three…” and the kid pipes up with “Nine!” and you’re like “Okay, but no – no – the next one’s four.” “Seven!” “Okay, just forget I said anything.”
But if you’re telling me Nine, deep down, you need to believe in that Nine.
Nobody has the skill and originality you can bring to something.
On this blog tour is Safie Maken-Finlay. Among the most erudite of book-lovers, Safie has some terrific apocalyptic and young-adult fiction in the works. She writes and reviews books, and she wears an intellect keener than mine very lightly. Safie’s website is here and her Twitter is here. Her pet peeves are here.
Also on the tour:
Yusuf Toropov, an American novelist, nonfiction writer, and playwright. Remarkable scenes permeate this man’s stuff, with a rhythm and artistry that go beyond narrative. His works of fiction affect me in my bones in ways that I rarely see from anyone else. His novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, about a US intelligence agent accused of terrorism, is published by Orenda Books. Yusuf’s website is here and his Twitter is here. His pet peeves are here.