Pick apart published pages #1

Now and then I come across books where the standard of writing is so poor that no matter how intriguing the story is, I cannot get past the writing errors. I decided it was time to stop complaining and pick apart some sample pages to work out where the key problems were, and provide some thoughts for myself that might also be useful for you (especially if you are writing fiction). I’m going to do the close commenting first and then tell you the title and author at the end!

Today’s novel is crime fiction, written in first person, present tense. This is always a tricky POV/tense combination to choose. It can create great immediacy and intimacy for the reader, if it’s done well. If not, it can be like a constant tic that eventually drives you away from the book.

Firstly, in first person, we need to be inside the character’s head. In fact, that’s a given, so much so that we do not need to be constantly reminded that this character is seeing, thinking, doing. As you walk along the street, are you thinking – I am walking along the street, I am greeting my neighbour, I notice he has grown a beard …? No, you just do these things and show through action and dialogue.

In today’s “pick apart” novel, my first tic came on page 4 with The steam in my shower stall shifts, disturbed by a draft, and I think I hear someone. Instantly, I’m annoyed.  It’s followed two  sentences later with I think... Both of these are unnecessary in first person and are easily rewritten to keep us inside the character’s head instead of at a slight distance. There is a lot of dialogue, which helps move the story along, until we get to Chapter 2 where we gt two pages of the character looking at herself in the mirror and telling us her family background, along with a character assessment. I crave beauty and and feel deeply, but I’m an aberration, too. I can be immutable and unrelenting, and these behaviors are learned. etc etc. I don’t want to be told these things. I want to understand them through the character’s actions, reactions and emotions. Fiction Writing 101.

Further on, pages 41-50, there are multiple examples of I look, I get a glimpse, I see, I observe, I hear, I wonder. These are all the kinds of super-obvious unnecessary verbs that I underline in students’ work and point out that they are obsolete. If we are in the character’s head in first person, of course they are doing all these things. The reader simply wants to experience the world, not be continually reminded that the character is a filter.

The other thing I’m going to pick on is the dialogue tags. It’s another basic that new writers are told, for good reason – just use said (or in this case, says, since we’re in present tense). Instead, this author uses says maybe once per page on average. Otherwise we have answer, repeat, add, and a lot of asks. Not so bad? We also get puzzle, decide and inquire. Over  two pages 43-44 we get adds, states the obvious, goes on, puzzle, answers, suggests, coaxes. Oh, and one says.

Yes, I am being picky! These are small things but after 50 pages of them, I can’t read any more of this book. These are things I tell my students not to do, because they’re basic craft elements. No wonder they come back to me sometimes and say, “Look, this author does it.”  The book for “pick apart” today is Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell. I’ve always enjoyed her books, most of them anyway, but this one is going to stay unread.

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  1. Finding a well-written book is becoming scary difficult. It’s so obvious no knowledgeable eye ever gave it an edit or critique, but there it is wasting my time.


    On the matter of “said/says”, I take it a step further. One of my chosen Author Mentors advocates shunning all those dialogue tags. All of them. It’s occasionally tricky, but mostly it is accomplished by giving a character a voice. This means trying to create in-depth characters, so the domino effect is good. Only occasionally these days do any of my writing group make mention of “I don’t know who was speaking”. And, in my opinion, it’s in a scene where knowing who is speaking is irrelevant. A phrase like “Let’s all go get a bite to eat” doesn’t need an attribution.

    • That’s an interesting approach. I seem to remember an Irish writer who did that (and used dashes instead of speech marks). It certainly does force you to make sure your character voices are individual.

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