Thoughtful Thursday – Egregious Errors Edition

Welcome to the second installment in the Thoughtful Thursday column. If you have questions you would like to see addressed in this space, feel free to contact us, and put Thoughtful Thursday in the subject line.

Last week we had a great discussion about what your fantasy sin is. I’d like to acknowledge and welcome all the recently out-of-the-closet Goodkind fans. This week, I’d like to focus on the other end of the reading relationship: the author. There was a spirited discussion last week about the use of the word “sin,” so to keep anyone from thinking I have serious issues, I’m switching to the word “error” for today’s question: What is the most egregious error an author can commit in a book? Is there something a beloved author can do that is so horrible that you will stop reading the book?

I have some pet peeves when it comes to reading – “magik” spelled with a K for example – but am willing to overlook that if the story is strong. Where I will not budge is on superfluous violence. A good author should be able to denote the villain without having them kick puppies in the street or, what is more frequently done: rape or child abuse. I understand that those elements can be essential to the story line, and do not object to them in all cases, but at times it almost feels like there is an element of prurience to the sexual violence.

Okay, readers, it’s your turn: What do you think is an author’s most egregious error?

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  1. Recently, I stopped reading a novel because it got too gory. Gouged-out eyeballs were my personal limit. This was a novel that I really looked forward to reading. A strong plot might have kept me going–especially if I could have just skipped the gory parts–but the storyline was somewhat meandering and so I decided that reading on wasn’t worth having to put up with the gore.

    I also hate it when mentally disabled people are portrayed as monsters. Two authors I reviewed recently used plotlines with this pet peeve. It won’t necessarily make me stop reading, but the author will get a serious ding when I write my review. On our five point scale, I’d say it’s worth an entire point.

  2. I can’t stand authors who can’t just move on already and end up extending trilogies into huge series or keep writing books about the same characters, with each book becoming increasingly thin in plot. Some authors make it to four or five books before this happens, some before then. It’s annoying when something that started as a fun idea becomes dragged out forever.
    I recently set down a book in just such a series because it seems to have devolved almost entirely to uninteresting character and relationship stuff with only a whiff of plot somewhere off in the background. Which, mind you, I wouldn’t necessarily be bothered by, but it is, as I said, all uninteresting. Constant action and plot progression isn’t the end all be all (and can even be a bit exhausting to read) but if you can’t make your characters’ lives and relationships entertaining, get on with the plot or quit while you’re ahead!

  3. I don’t like fantasy stories where magic is overly common place or just a replacement of real-world modern technology. An analogy I often make; if the system-of-magic is like a cell-phone -most everyone has one of varying quality and, as helpful as a cell-phone is they’ve become a public nuisance and a dangerous distraction- that’s a book I’m gonna get easily bored with.

    Badly written dialog is another thing. If the dialog is like something you from a TV soap-opera, then the whole story is gonna seem fake.

  4. Robert /

    So many ways to mess up storytelling, and comparatively few ways to do it just right. I don’t know if I can pick just 1, but 3 big red flags for me are: (1) shoddy writing–be it cliched, unclear, over-descriptive, or simply incorrect; (2) perhaps as a special sub-class of shoddy writing, cringe-inducing dialogue; and (3) nonsensical plots, where either a character’s choices don’t make sense in context or the overall plot has massive holes in it. RR

  5. Another thing that will get me to stop reading a book is lazy characterization. If each character only has one trait or action that differentiates them from each other, the book is getting tossed. I’m thinking of one braid-tugger in particular as I write this, but following in our fearless leader’s footsteps, I shall not name names.

  6. Well, it’s okay to point out his flaws because he has enough fans. (And it’s okay for me to pick on Goodkind and LKH for the same reason). But I was thinking of a couple of lesser-knowns who probably are lesser known because their writing is so dull.

  7. You know descriptions is a tricky thing because it doesn’t take much to over-due, but specifically in fantasy, sense its usually a totally made-up world, with made-up creatures/species/races, it can be even worse to not have enough description.

    The fun of reading fantasy is escaping to a world totally different from our real one. I want the experience to be as real as reading a book can make it. I want to know if a monster is furry like a werewolf or has scales like a reptile. I want to know if a warrior is a big battle-scared brute or a dashing swashbuckler. Is a fortress cliff-side castle or a hill-top palisade. And I want to know these things as the story unfolds, not several chapters later after I’ve already got another idea in my head.

  8. Oooh, Greg, your problem with description made me think of another peeve. Cover art that doesn’t match the description in the book. I spent an entire brick of a book wondering when the character depicted on the cover was going to show up. She never did. At least not in that incarnation.

  9. Sarah /

    My biggest no-no is an author who must describe torture in sadistic detail. Especially if it involves a child. One author (who shall remain nameless) was not ‘just tossed, but I threw the book away rather than even donate it to the library after his second, extremely detailed description of the killing of a child. I still can’t get those images out of my head.

    I blame the publishers for the bad cover art. The authors don’t always get a lot of say in that.

  10. Yeah, you’re right Sarah about publishers controlling the cover art. I’d be interested in seeing what information artists are given about the books they are illustrating. Suzie, do you know anything about that?

  11. Sarah /

    Unpronounceable character names annoy me. I don’t mind a couple of names, I can make up something for them, but I hate it when every character in the book has to have a garbled pseudo celtic name with extra apostrophes and special characters. If you can’t convince me I’m in a fantasy world with your writing, giving the characters strange names isn’t going to solve your problem. I may be missing out on some great books with this problem, feel free to recommend some therapy reading for me. :)

  12. Avoid Diana Francis Pharaoh, Sarah. And Elizabeth Kerner. I can handle names pretty well, maybe cause I’ve got to write them myself sometimes, but there’s two writers who give me headaches with their names,

  13. That’s it Sarah, I’m going to write a book with the main character having the name of Kei’7sioea#l’ri@d. Just for you. :D

  14. I also can’t stand when authors can’t move on from a series and just leave it “finished” – staying in the same world can work but sometimes only so much can happen with a character and it’s better to let them be happy and live in peace.

    But more than that I can’t stand when an author forsakes plot or character development for superfluous sex scenes – especially if it’s a book in a series that started out well-written and then has fallen apart.

  15. Pet Peeves: like others, bad cover art that insults the story and drives away readers (Wheel of Time started off okay (for its time), but then got progressively worse. The UK covers are okay). Worst of all is a series that should have been wrapped up books ago, but due to sales success, the editors didn’t care or were unable to reign in the author (again, WoT, and Sword of Truth (face it, Terry, you should have left it alone at a trilogy, maybe with the prequel added later)). Piers Anthony should have quit the Xanth books after three or four. After that, they are pretty much pointless. Jordan could have had a great masterpiece if he had finished WoT in 9 or 10 books, and cut out the gratuitous spanking of adult women (and the braid pulling), plus the whole Perrin/Faile/Shaido storyline. I loved that series once (I have all the first prints in HC except The Great Hunt), but it lost it five books ago.

  16. rebecca /

    For me, major problems arise when there’s a genre-switch halfway through a series. If I’m reading a light-hearted comedy, I don’t suddenly want blood and gore and meaningless deaths. On the other hand, very dark books can be quite successful in adding elements of black comedy, but you wouldn’t want them to undermine themselves by suddenly becoming cheery and fluffy.

    Off the top of my head, the only example I can think of (embarrassingly enough) is Stephanie Meyer. Now, before I’m heckled, I’m not a fan of Edward McSparkle, but I read the first installment, and then “Breaking Dawn,” after having heard about the controversy. And I can see why so many people were upset with the final book: going from a chaste-yet-forbidden romance novel to a sci-fi blood fest in which Bella has her spine broken and spews up blood over everything while Edward jabs her with a venom-filled syringe…probably NOT a good idea.

  17. Sarah /

    Thanks Ruth, I look forward to reading your novel. Will you enclose a pronunciation guide and a 6 page explanation of the language you have ‘translated’ from a lost manuscript discovered in a lost annexe of the Library of Alexandria. And some pseudo-factual historical notes in the back?

    I haven’t yet been talked into reading the McSparkle series (my daughter loves that description) and after reading rebecca’s comments it adds to my determination not to.

    And I agree with Suzie, I don’t need superfluous sex scenes any more than I need the exaggerated violence.

  18. William Capossere /

    My biggest annoyance is pretty broad and thus covers a lot of the already listed ones–when the author simply clearly doesn’t respect the reader. I know the author has no respect for me when his characters make arbitrary decisions or take arbitrary actions required by the plot needs rather than the character’s personality or history. The author has no respect when they use the same damn lazy phrase again and again and again (“crossed her arms across her chest fiercly”–yeah, I’m looking at you). The author has no respect when they drag out “story” for the sake of more books (sometimes they also have no respect for their father–yeah, I’m looking at you). The author has no respect when I’m supposed to believe it’s a wholly different unique world just cuz they gave it a funky name instead of actually crafting rich details to create said world or when the “magic” just works cuz it’s, well, “magic”. The author has no respect when they assume I’ve read no other fantasy and so won’t recognize when they rip off dragon-human bonding or “true words” or “spine of the world” (yeah, I’m looking at you). And the list goes on.
    I tire of cliche, groan at clumsy dialogue or clumsy exposition, sigh at bloated plot, but if these seem to be mere flaws I can live with it (though perhaps I’ll put the book down if they’re bad enough). But I get righteously pissed when I feel insulted by the author.

  19. I think these comments should be required reading for all aspiring authors.

  20. In defense of Diana Pharaoh Francis: I have a copy of her first urban fantasy (Bitter Night) and I flipped through. The protagonist’s name is Max. Other names I noticed are Alexandra, Selange, Giselle (a witch, of course), Thor, Brynna. But then there’s Xaphan, too. Not too bad… I guess she’s using a different style for this subgenre.

  21. I haven’t read her urban fantasy. I read her fantasy, her debut actually. And oof, the names. I actually sort of blipped over them because I found them too difficult to puzzle out fast enough for my reading pace.

  22. Bitter Night is her first urban fantasy, I believe. So, it looks like she’s dropped the “epic” names. Good idea! I hope that’s gone out of style.
    I loved it, by the way, that Tolkien named his trolls (in The Hobbit) William, Bert and Tom.

  23. Sarah /

    It’s nice to know I’m not alone. I actually have the first book in DPF’s 2nd series somewhere on the TBR mountain range. And just looking at the description of her books, she sounds like an author I’d like to try, although The Path series probably got rejected because of the names. I may have to give the first one a try anyhow. I can forgive the names if the story is well written enough to let me blip over like Beth mentioned. It’s when the author starts commiting some of the errors William mentioned that it becomes unbearable.

    Are all Giselle’s really witches? Are there any other names that are only specific types of characters? Something else to sidetrack myself with as I’m reading this weekend. And I’m now eagerly waiting for the review of Bitter Night.

  24. rebecca /

    I can attest to one more Giselle-witch in L.J. Smith’s “Night World” series.

  25. “Are there any other names that are only specific types of characters?”

    Well, if you happen to meet a Lilith, keep your neck covered.

  26. Nathanael Green /

    I get so frustrated with the reverse deus ex machina. It’s when writers use a sudden, and heretofore unmentioned limitation of magic to create the horrible obstacle at the very end of a book.

    Magic needs to have rules, and as painful as it is when authors ignore them to get characters out of trouble (the deus ex machina), I find it even worse when authors ignore the rules or make up new ones to add a sudden conflict (maybe a meus ex dachina? ;-).

  27. I agree with Nathanael — magic systems must have rules that are (relatively) logical and consistent.

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