Top Ten Tuesday: Top Book Turn-Offs

I liked today’s Top Ten topic at The Broke and the Bookish, so I thought I’d give it a go. Thing is, I realized, that I could go in so many directions with this list. I decided to focus on things that turn me off while I am actually reading a book even to the point where I abandon it entirely. And no, I no longer have any guilt about abandoning books with these problems.

1. Bad grammar or style. I’m always amazed at people who tell me that if the story is good, they aren’t bothered by grammatical mistakes or poor writing style. What I think they really mean is that they wouldn’t know a grammar mistake or poor style if it hit them upside the head. Otherwise, how could they go on reading? Bad grammar and poor style are the reasons I didn’t finish book one of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series. I’m still puzzled as to how something can be considered essential reading when it’s so poorly written.

2. Bad metaphors/similes. Not long ago, I was reading a novel that a member of my book club had selected as our book that month, and I came across this: “She plucked the phone from the wall like an apple from a tree.” Let’s break it down, shall we? First, “pluck” is a verb that would really never make sense in association with answering a phone, even a phone mounted on a wall. Second, “pluck” is a verb that doesn’t even make sense in regards to taking an apple from a tree…I suppose one could claim poetic license. Whenever I’ve picked an apple from a tree, it hasn’t come away from its branch quite so easily. Third…what? That metaphor lends nothing to character, or story, or meaning. It’s just a writer trying to find a “writerly” way to say, “She answered the phone.” I closed the book and never looked back. (Okay, the book had other problems besides the apple phone.)

3. Actions or emotions that don’t seem true to a character. I find it jarring when I am halfway through a book and a character says or does something that doesn’t ring true. When this happens, generally the author is doing one of two things: 1. Making the character do or say something out of character because she’s putting plot ahead of character and needs to get from A to B without changing too much of what’s come before; 2. Having the character do or feel something the author himself would feel in that situation. Recently I was reading a book where the protagonist was a teenage boy whose mother had just died. Out of nowhere, the boy had thoughts about his dead mother that simply did not seem like the thoughts of a teenage boy; they seemed like the thoughts of a much older person with more perspective on life, on parenthood, and on loss of a loved one. It was the only stumble in an otherwise very good book, but it pulled me out of a poignant moment.

4. Wacky verbs. Okay, I suppose we already covered this one with “plucked,” but wacky verbs can truly ruin a scene. Recently in a book I was reading, the author used the verb trot several times early on in the novel to describe characters walking from one place to another. In these scenes, the author was setting up one of the main tensions of the book–the fact that a convicted killer is coming to live with a simple farm family while she awaits her execution–and the author had the daughters “trotting” to and fro. Picture a person trotting. Looks a bit silly, no? It lessened the tension somewhat, and not in a good way.

5 Precocious or eccentric children. When I encounter precocious children who are wiser than their years and sound like adults, I mainly think that the author doesn’t know how to write about children or from a child’s point of view. Much easier to turn child characters into tiny adults, I suppose, than to rethink the book or character, especially if the author is already too invested or far along in the writing.

6. Overwriting. Too many metaphors, too much description–the hallmarks of overwriting. I do not need to know every item in a character’s kitchen cabinet. That is not verisimilitude; it’s detail for detail’s sake. The fact a character has Heinz 57 sauce instead of A-1 doesn’t really tell me anything about the character I need to know (unless, of course, the bottle will be/has been used as a murder weapon at some point in the story). Details that don’t drive the story forward get in the way. Overwriting also almost always leads to bad metaphors, or to bad writing in general. Consider the following:

“The letter to Daniel Robbin came like an instinct, flying from her hand and sweeping across the satin-white paper like a flurry of snow, hesitating only slightly when she wrote the date…” (from The Crying Tree, by Naseem Rakha)

Letter flying from hand: bad. Satin-white paper: unnecessary description. Sweeping like a flurry of snow? Isn’t snow white? White words on white paper? Awesome! Also, the gerund phrase “hesitating only slightly…” actually modifies “letter.” A letter cannot hesitate. A writer hesitates. Where is the actor? Buried beneath the snow, perhaps?

7. Jazz hands. Some of you may think that over-writing is the same thing as jazz hands, but it is a distinct thing. Jazz hands is when a good writer wants to show how clever he or she really is. Jazz hands is the reason I’ve never read past page five of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Jazz hands is why I didn’t much like Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man or Ian McEwan’s Solar.

8. Too much quirk. If I think a book might be overly quirky or twee, I stay far, far away. See #6, Precocious or eccentric children. Also see talking animals or animals in general; eccentric aunts, uncles, or grandparents; or magical book stores. Actually, this is a tough one because some terrific books have some of the things I just listed–I just try to go with my gut.

9. The Noble Savage. This doesn’t bother me in books written before, say, 1930. I mean, it does bother me, but in a different way than when I see it in recent novels set in current time. In a modern context, this is a trope that needs to die. I’m looking at you, Little Bee.

10. Too many adverbs. I’ll admit, this is one of those things I never noticed until I saw a writer mention it on one of those lists of mistakes for writers to avoid. Now I can’t un-see the adverbs. I might not quit reading a book altogether because of this one, but every unnecessary adverb is a tiny knife to my heart. (How’s that for some bad writing?)

What are your turn-offs? Um, about books. Book turn-offs only, please.

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14 comments

  1. Great list, though I do not judge language to much as I often read in a different language than my own I do know hot annoying it can be.
    I totally agree with your point 3!

  2. Ciska, I see that it could be difficult to judge language when you are reading in translation. In some way does that feel like relief, like you can actually focus more on the story?

  3. Jazz Hands. I like that. I was trying so hard to explain exactly that in my own list. I totally agree.
    Here’s my TTT
    Megan @ Love, Literature, Art, and Reason

  4. That apple/phone simile is terrible. I also hate over-writing, and also blocks of description that are there just to be “pretty” but do nothing to advance atmosphere, true sense of place, plot, or character.

  5. Megan, the thing that gets me about the jazz hands is that it’s such a lazy thing for a good author to do. It just smacks of “I’m me; I can just throw some cleverness down on the page and *everyone* will want to read it!”

  6. Christy, I don’t mind those blocks of description if there aren’t too many of them. I’m willing to give a good author the chance at being poetic for aesthetic reasons as long as it doesn’t become a thing–at that point, we’ve crossed the line into jazz hands’ annoying cousin, interpretive dance.

  7. I agree with all your gripes, apart from the eccentric children. I agree that children are often done badly and are often portrayed as mini adults, but I love children that are a little bit different. Sometimes (eg When I was Five I Killed Myself) eccentric child narrator can really work.

  8. Jackie, I wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately, I find myself quitting books with children as main characters/narrators after the first few pages more frequently than not. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go add When I Was Five I Killed Myself to my TBR…

  9. Precocious children is a good one, and I like your logic on why it appears so often. I also think it’s kind of wish fulfillment sometimes, that everyone wishes they were the precocious, brilliant child with a unique mind. Nope, I was the kid with chocolate on her face playing with Barbie and reading The Baby-Sitters Club and being completely kid-like.

  10. Tara, I never thought of that. You might be on to something, especially given the number of writers who love to proclaim they started writing practically in the womb. That story is worn out. I’m interested in the ones who took a while to figure it out, but when they hit it, they really hit it.

  11. Jazz hands. Love it. It’s something I’ve been seeing alot lately (looking at you, Michael Chabon), and that’s the perfect term for it.

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