7 things that annoy me in books

coupleMy top seven personal niggles as a reader – while being fully aware that I have committed some of these crimes as a writer. But not 3, 5, 6 or 7.

1. Chapters that start with the formula: “Blah de blah,” said character X, as he did thing Y. For example, “It’s a lovely day for an Easter egg hunt,” said Morag, as she wiped the dust from her violin case. I’m not even sure why this annoys me. It just does, and it’s extremely common, probably because it lands the reader right in the middle of some action, which is supposed to be A Good Thing. I’ve doubtless used it myself and that annoys me, too.

2. What I call “cigarette work.” This is all the little details of someone smoking a cigarette which is typically used to break up dialogue. “It’s a lovely day for an Easter egg hunt,” said Morag, lighting another cigarette. It can also be used to signify mood: “It’s a terrible day for an Easter egg hunt,” said Morag, stubbing her cigarette out on her violin case. This is one I definitely have used myself (not the violin case example, obviously), and I realise it’s very useful for pacing a long stretch of dialogue. But what irks me about it is that I always wonder how a narrator of a story would be able to remember at which point cigarettes were lit, ash was flicked and smoke was blown, and just that little thought is enough to pull me out of the story for a few seconds.

3. Men picking up women. In the sense of lifting them off their feet and conveying them to another location. If the man in question is a fireman and the house is ablaze, fair enough, but if it’s supposed to be a romantic scene and the woman is quite literally swept off her feet to be deposited on a rose petal-strewn bed or whatever – forget it. I find the whole idea of portable women very silly.

4. Annoying names. This would put me off a book at the blurb stage – I just can’t get into a book if the characters have silly names. I’ve waffled on about that more here.

5. Long descriptions. In Elmore Leonard’s famous rules for writers, number 8 is “avoid detailed descriptions of characters” and number 9 is “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things,” but the whole lot can be dealt with under number 10: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Readers tend to skip detailed descriptions. I do, anyway.

6. Grandparents. Specifically, grandparents (or even worse, great-grandparents) in biographies. If I read a biography of someone, I’m not interested in what their ancestors got up to. Sometimes a quarter of the book will have passed and the person you want to know about hasn’t even been born yet.

7. Monsters. I love a good scary story, whether it’s a book or film, but they’re always scariest before the monster is seen, because then your imagination can fill up the empty space with whatever terrifies you most. As soon as the monster physically appears, they become manageable and sometimes just silly (Cloverfield, or Daleks). The exception to this is when the monster is a scary human (Hannibal Lecter) or the creature in the Alien films – and most of the power of that creature is that you usually only see bits of it. The bits with teeth.

Story: Cumbrian Christmas

Important note: Some of the characters in this story are the invention and property of the BBC/Holby City. This is a completely unofficial, unauthorised work of fan fiction.

Joseph Byrne was always my favourite Holby City character and ever since he left to become a GP in Cumbria I’ve often wondered how he was getting on. I also wondered what he would make of discovering Jac was pregnant. Having hoped in vain for a festive, Cumbria-based episode, I decided I’d better write it myself. 

joseph jac holby

The rain on the windscreen pixellated and blurred the distant fell tops. Joseph Byrne turned on the windscreen wiper and the view cleared for a second – dark, leafless hedgerows and the fells beyond looking stark and snow-capped. To his right a shaft of sunlight picked out a hillside and made it sparkle. To his left everything was dark and gloomy. Typical Lake District weather – four seasons in one day. He switched on his headlights.   Continue reading

Top model

521f7e5f451892bd1d000d5b-0a14956d76a67cb30fb4c1b052ad1216A new play is opening in London soon, about the life of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and muse Lizzie Siddall. She was a fascinating woman, and I really recommend Lucinda Hawksley’s book Lizzie Siddall: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel.

In the play, the part of Lizzie will be played by actress Emma West, who looks amazingly like her. She says that whenever she visits Tate Britain, where several Pre-Raphaelite paintings hang, including the famous one of Ophelia modelled by Lizzie, she always gets a reaction and people ask her to pose in front of it.

“The last time it was a couple of Japanese tourists who were quite freaked out [by the resemblance], it seemed to me,” she says.

This interested me, because that’s exactly the starting point of my book Better Than the Real Thing. The main character, Lia, is visiting Tate Britain to while away some time, and is struck by the face of a beautiful man in a painting called Lorenzo and Isabella, by Millais (who also painted Ophelia). When she turns round, a man who looks uncannily like Lorenzo is standing behind her, and he strikes up a conversation, telling her that she looks exactly like Isabella. It seems like fate – but who is he really?

Lizzie Siddal is at the Arcola Theatre, London E8, from 20 November – 21 December 2013.

Too perfect for words

Adam LambertI used to be a big fan of shows like American Idol and The X Factor, until they got really rubbish. Back in 2009, Adam Lambert came second in American Idol and kicked off a successful solo career based on actual talent, style and great presence. I liked his music and the way he presented himself (I do love a goth-looking boy), and the way he was so completely out and proud about his sexuality.

He often posts photographs of himself on Twitter. I don’t blame him – if I was that beautiful I’d post photos of myself, too. Something struck me about the latest batch, though. He looks just too perfect. His hair and makeup are absolutely immaculate, he’s dressed fabulously, he’s beautifully lit. And, to me, this makes him look far less attractive than he used to before he had an army of stylists to primp him up.

I know this is all image and he obviously looks completely different when he’s just woken up or has a cold or whatever, and the way he presents himself is completely his choice and it’s one of the things that’s always been interesting about him. But it illustrated a point that someone was making to me about one of my books.   Continue reading

Madness in my method

AirI’m not the most organised of writers. I’m disciplined, in the sense that I turn up at my desk at the appointed time and get some words written, but what I do while I’m writing isn’t the most sensible and productive method.

I’m what they call a “pantser” – because I “write by the seat of my pants” (though I’m British so maybe I should say “trousers”). Basically, I don’t start off with much of a plan, and I make it up as I go along.

When I started writing books I didn’t know there was any other way to do it. I had an idea for an opening scene, so I wrote that down and then thought, “What happens next?” I’m usually lucky in being able to think up the what-happens-next bit fairly quickly, but it does lead to a few lulls. I stranded one poor character smoking on a particular bench in Berlin for weeks, before I worked out he wasn’t the villain, he was the hero, and he had no reason to be on that bench in the first place. And he didn’t smoke, either.   Continue reading

Green-eyed charmer

Close... but not quite. Desmond Harrington

Close… but not quite.

My book Time After Time is currently on sale in the Kindle store for 99¢ on Amazon.com (77p in UK). At that price, every Kindle should have one! When the book was first published I got so many emails from readers saying how much they loved the hero, Gideon. Some of the comments:

“Gideon has star quality from his first entrance”

“I could identify so much with the book because I had my own Gideon Harker while in school”

“I think I seriously fell in love with Gideon Harker. If you know a magician, please get him to whip up a Gideon clone for me”

I was really thrilled to get these comments, not just because people had enjoyed the book, but because they loved Gideon as much as I did (still do).

Is he a real person? Well, only in my imagination! I can clearly remember when he popped into my head. I was shopping in a town near where I was born, and out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a tall, dark-haired man. I don’t think I really even looked at him properly, there was just something that triggered my mind to wonder, if I could picture the most perfect man, what would he be like?   Continue reading