A Novel Question

I’ve recently been reading a series – or maybe more accurately, a serial novel, by Charles Stross, whom I admire. He could write a preface to a phone book and I’d enjoy it, but in this particular instance, I’m finding myself becoming annoyed. He’s triggered my three main pet peeves of novel writing, so I’m probably done for now.

The Endless Series
I like stories that wrap themselves up in a single book. I enjoy multiple novels set in the same universe, chronologically (see: Vorkosigan, Miles) but I’m not crazy about never-ending story arcs. In some cases I can tolerate trilogies if there is some story resolution within the larger arc, giving definition to the individual novels, but I can’t think of a longer series I’ve enjoyed. In a sprawling series, I dislike the proliferation of characters at the expense of character development, the lack of forward momentum on the plotline giving a “perils of Pauline” feel to the story, and the introduction of more questions than answers into a story (see: Wheel of Time series). I especially detest the cliffhanger ending; the lack of resolution actually has the opposite effect on me, I’m much less likely to buy the follow-up novel because it makes me highly annoyed with the story and the author.

Diverging Points of View
When writing a sprawling series, it’s very difficult to tell a story of broad scope and scale through a single hero’s point of view. As the story grows more complex, and groups of characters split, divide, and go their own way, the point of view splits, divides, and follows different groups of characters, interwoven throughout the book. (see: Clancy, Tom) This creates multiple interlocking story lines that are interdependent upon each other, that converge and impact each other, and that affect each others’ pacing. When used sparingly it can be effective; when overused it can kill a story. All too often, if there are too many groups of characters that the reader is not sympathetic to, or story lines that are faltering, it drags the whole story down with it – plus, the author can create a sense of chaos by trying to follow too many different points of view simultaneously.

The Mary-Sue Heroine
The Mary Sue is a term originally coined in fan fiction but extended to regular fiction to describe the hero or heroine who is too perfect to be possible in the universe at hand. It’s used to describe an over-the-top and clich├ęd character whose features, such as exotic hair and eye colors, mystical or superhuman powers are greater than those of the other characters. This character often has exotic pets, possessions or origins, or an unusually tragic past, often glaringly out of keeping with the inner consistency of the universe. The character is often improbably lucky in romance, adventure, battle or popularity, and the rules and customs of the universe bend for him or her. (see: Wright, Jim) In this particular series, the main character is believable, but a couple of the supporting heroines keep developing Mary Sue type qualities in deus ex machina ways. “Oh, we need X talent? Oh, in spite of what it seemed like, she has the talent, she’s had it all along, she’s just been a covert operative hiding that capability.”

What are your reading pet peeves – what makes you so annoyed that you are not likely to finish a book, continue a series or continue buying from an author?

15 Responses to “A Novel Question”

  1. Michelle K Says:

    Number One is my biggest peeve, and why I’ve been reading more supernatural fantasy in recent years–because for the most part supernatural fantasy series are written like mystery series: overarching story arc that grows with each book, but individual story arcs are wrapped up in a single book.

    It’s even worse if each book in the series is a tome in and of itself.

    At this point in time, when I pick up a book I’m looking for a few hours of escape–not a lifetime commitment.

    Diverging points of view I’m OK with. Spoiled or foolish teenager characters–not so much.

    And I HATE it when a character turns out to be a total Jim Wright.

    I don’t like it when they’re a Mary Sue either. ;)

  2. Nathan Says:

    I hate the ones that never resolve anything as much as you do…and Wheel of Time was my first introduction to the concept.

    Another that comes to mind probably isn’t an author problem per se, but when I read a book full of typos, I keep thinking “if no-one in the process of getting this thing to print cared enough, why should I?”

    Also, I love well crafted wordsmithing (Gaiman and Stephenson come to mind). They may make you work for it, but they always reward you. Some authors “wordsmith” to the point where I have no idea what the story’s about.

  3. Nathan Says:

    Oh, and I snorted big time over the Jim as SuperHero bit.

  4. Shawn Powers Says:

    I’m annoyed by plots that are “so darn clever” that they make no sense until the end. If ever.

    I want to understand what’s happening. That doesn’t mean there can’t be suspense, unknown significance, or other “yet to be revealed even if you weren’t expecting it” type things. I just hate thinking the author was growing a peyote farm while writing.

    I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but if I read 2-3 chapters and I’m still making THIS face — I quit.

  5. Nathan Says:

    I usurp Shawn’s peeve also. A well crafted mystery makes me slap my forehead and ask, “how did I miss that?” If the author never told me about the hidden Swiss bank account, the missing triplet (I only knew about twins), the secretly patented FTL travel on Earth, and the assassin’s peanut allergy, he cheated!

  6. Nathan Says:

    Just so you all know, I plan to usurp everyone’s peeves.

  7. mattw Says:

    I also hate when a series drags on and there’s the cliff hanger ending. Or, when it’s a trilogy and the first book could conceivably be a stand alone, but the second and third cannot (i.e. Dies the Fire series by S.M. Stirling – really nothing happened in the second book)

    I hate poor writing that takes the form of rampant over use of cliches.

    I hate poor writing that takes the form of using the same descriptive word twice in a sentence. I just recently listened to The Ice Man, Confessions of a Mafia Killer and I distinctly remember the word ‘wavy’ used twice in the same sentence to describe the heat coming off the street.

    I hate long, drawn out descriptions of setting that really do nothing to enhance the story (i.e. The Black House by King/Straub – the first 60 to 100 pages were little more than a detailed description of the town).

    I also hate it when the same description is used over and over and over for a main character. How many times do I need to be told that the main character’s favorite sandwich is turkey and mayo? The main character’s favorite sandwich is turkey and mayo you say? No shit? I thought maybe it had changed from the last six times that you told me.

    There’s more, but I should get some work done this morning.

  8. Michelle K Says:

    Matt–there’s a disconnect between your first and your last peeves, assuming they’re across a series. If you want a book to be able to stand alone in a series, you have to describe the characters in each book. :)

    And if you read Simon Green, I’ve come to find his use of “appalling” amusing.

  9. mattw Says:

    Michelle, they were actually relating to different books. 2, 3, and 5 all have to do with the same book, The Ice Man. 1 and 4 are just in general. I was just ranting as they came to me, and I had no thought to the disconnect I had created (oops).

    And as long as I’m back here in Jeri’s wonderful corner of the Intertubes…

    The other thing that I have thought of before is related directly to Stephen King, although I’m sure it happens with other authors too. The voice of the older books is much different from the newer books. What I mean is that in the older books the story is told in a different way that I can fully immerse myself in. His newer books, at least within the last ten years or so, have a different voice. He seems to have taken a stance where he’s more familiar with the reader and it seems like he’s speaking directly to the reader.

    I can understand after so many books how he would come to this, and I’m sure every writer’s style and method evolves over time, but when he’s speaking directly to the reader, like a character in a movie looking directly to the camera and speaking to the audience, it tends to push me away from the story rather than pull me in. Consequently, I’ve only read a couple of his more recent books, really just the last three of the Dark Tower series.

  10. Eric Says:

    I tend to (eventually) finish anything I’ve started, even when it’s godawful and I just want to throw it away. So I don’t have any “mission abort” pet peeves when it comes to books, but I have a few.

    One that comes to mind because it sort of marred an otherwise pretty-good book that I actually enjoyed a lot (Dan Simmons’ The Terror) is what I’m calling “Expositionary Anachronism” right now. This is when a writer succumbs to the temptation to have one (or more) characters in a period-novel begin to talk about a notion that’s maybe commonplace now but would be total crazy-talk in the era the story is set in.

    This is often (though not always) presented in the form of an otherwise-ordinary, normal or respectable doctor, naturalist or philosopher saying he (or a close colleague) “Has a theory about that…,” whereupon the character lays out some bit of high school physics or biology that would have gotten him laughed out of the academy in [year].

    E.g. The Terror not only features a doctor who apparently knows more about food poisoning and scurvy than any other doctor in the first half of the nineteenth century, but there’s actually a scene where an admittedly-well-read sailor begins to talk about Darwinism about a decade before Darwin published Origin Of Species; not utterly impossible, since Darwin was engaged in a lot of correspondence with friends and Simmons has his characters discuss evolution in “a friend of a friend says that…” terms, but still pretty bloody hard to swallow.

    The problem with calling it “Expositionary Anachronism” is that while writers usually do it to explain their plot, sometimes it’s just a form of Mary-Suism. I like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, but it’s sort of irritating that her main character just has to be a guy whose attitudes towards race, gender, class, sex and Empire are a century-and-a-half ahead of his times except for those occasions where an awkward or amusing situation can be made. Normal pre-Victorian British attitudes only show up to offer conflict or humor, never where they’d make the main character look like a pretty huge jackass for saying or thinking the kinds of things that even progressives of the time would, sadly, have taken for granted.

    So if anybody has a better, catchier name, great!

  11. Jeri Says:

    Michelle, I hear you on the lifetime commitment bit. Although I’ve heard urban legends of complete Wheel of Time sets being used to block up cars during tire changes, so they have their uses.

    Nathan, you’re not usurping pet peeves, you’re sharing them. There’s a difference. Like love, there’s always plenty of irritation to go around.

    Matt, the repetitive quirks and word use do get old. In my volcano novel I’m going to have to watch the use of the word devastation. There are tools out there that let you do top word count – they can help manage that particular writing demon. Also, interesting observation on author’s voice. In general, I find many author’s later works to be worse, as they get undisciplined, more pressured to produce to deadline, and less subject to editorial input and discipline. (JK Potter anyone?)

    Eric, I’ve actually been waiting for that particular book to hit paperback – and I have it downloaded to iTunes – so I’ll have to watch for that. The expository anachronism is almost a deus ex machina in another guise, or at least the technology or information revealed is often used that way. Novik’s books, while declining in quality a little, did not actually trigger most of my series pet peeves (except that “all the dragons are dead” ending of one of the books).

  12. Jim Wright Says:

    What the hell? How did I get dragged into this? ;)

    I hate the run-on, never ending series. Like Jeri, I enjoy books set in the same universe (Niven’s Known Space, Martin’s Federal Empire), but I want each one to stand on it’s own. Martin’ Fire and Ice series is an example of the kind of thing I hate – it just goes on and on and on, dozens of characters, shifting settings – I just lost interest, and lost track of what was going on. Every time a new book comes out, you’ve got to go reread everything. Holy crap, how tedious. I feel like I need a scorecard and some summaries. Fire and Ice feels like keeping track of the biggest MMRPG in the universe. Same with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue Mars series – which was starting to read like minutes of the UN General Assembly by the time I was halfway through the second book.

    Also, I hate characters who don’t do reasonable things. I’m not talking about only doing what I would do in the same circumstance, but consistently doing the most boneheaded thing imaginable. The Anti-Mary Sue.

    And speaking of Mary Sue – I’m not big on the whole Mary Sue bit, but I do enjoy characters who can and do do things beyond the scope of the average. I’ve known a lot of people like that in real life and I guess it could be argued that I’m one myself. I like characters who strive to push beyond boundaries, but who also believe that anybody can do those things if they only put some effort into it. I like characters who don’t accept limits. Some people are bigger than life, and they’re usually the ones worth knowing – which is probably why I like Heinlein protagonists so much, but then again, Heinlein was trained much the same way I was.

  13. Eric Says:

    Jim, if GRRM (1) finishes ASOIAF and (2) pulls it all together, I think the series will have a definite beginning, middle and end–sort of a “fake” series in the same way that Tolkien’s LOTR is one really one novel, not actually a trilogy.

    At least that’s what I think GRRM meant to do. I think it’s gotten a bit away from him, partly because the way publishing and being a working author works these days (I don’t think he or his publisher were interested in waiting until he’d written 4, 6 or 7 books and then publishing them, instead publishing them as he’s writing them, which makes it easy to go astray) and partly because I think he’s lost control of his outline (I really do think he knows how it all ends, but has realized he doesn’t know how to get there).

    I think something similar happened to J.K. Rowling, who decided on a seven-book story arc that she knew the beginning and end to, only to realize she didn’t know how to get there and that her chosen structure didn’t permit her to go back and tell the first half of the story (hence the crammed-in flashbacks of the sixth and seventh books). In retrospect, she could have told the story better had she written it as three books or maybe three trilogies (the Dumbledore story, the Potters/Snape/Voldemort story, and Harry’s story), but that didn’t really start to become clear until she was more than 6/7ths the way through the whole thing.

    I’m still holding out hope GRRM will pull the whole thing together. But I feel where you’re coming from. The fourth Ice And Fire book felt like things were out of control on Martin’s end.

  14. Nathan Says:

    OK, this is really the same thing you guys were whining about, but has anybody read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series? The first book snuck up on me. It was there in the new fiction masquerading as a time travel novel. Just a few pages in, GF points out that I’m reading a Bodice-Ripper. Fine. It was still a most excellent novel. Second one wasn’t bad at all. Third…NOTHING HAPPENS…all setup for number four.

    I’ve read all six but probably will forgo #7 (which may be finished a week or so after No Crying in the Warroom anyway).

  15. MWT Says:

    I have that problem with series too. Writing them, that is. Every time I start working on a new part of it, I end up having to heavily revise prior parts – so it’s a good thing nothing is published yet. :p Any published author who can manage to figure out how to work around that problem is a genius.