My 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.