We probably all have habits that our loved ones tolerate and overlook. I’m aware of a few of mine that my wife endures. I suddenly have acquired a taste for sunflower seeds for some reason. I don’t have any explanation of how I developed this fetish. Other than breaking them out at the occasional baseball game, I’ve never had much interest before. I’ve noticed that I reach for the sunflower seeds lately when I’m writing. Since I’m typing more than I ever have, I’m going through a lot of bags.
I’m not positive I know why she finds this repulsive, but I’m guessing it’s the noise from spitting into my cup. She has a similar reaction when I absent-mindedly pick at my fingernails or toenails. I’m not purposely trying to bother her, and I’ve learned to shut the door to the computer room when I grab the seeds.
My mind begins here because I’m thinking about my pet peeves as a reader. I know I’m guilty of using some in my writing. By recognizing what bothers me as a reader, my theory is that I will learn to avoid these same habits as a writer.
Pet Peeve #1—Implausibility This characteristic is a dealbreaker for me. I’m not referring to fantasy, science fiction, and make-believe worlds. I understand that characters don’t always act predictably, but their choices must be plausible, even if we wouldn’t make the same decision. As readers, we often put ourselves in a character’s shoes. We become invested in our protagonist, imagining what they’ll do. I don’t mind poor or off-the-wall choices, but they must be believable, or the writer loses complete credibility.
For example, if a character’s residence is on fire, they may have a variety of responses:
- Perhaps they make sure everyone else gets out safely first.
- Maybe they’re selfish, and their only concern is their own survival.
- Conceivably, there may be something of great sentimental value they attempt to grab before exiting, though some might call them crazy for doing so.
- I can also accept a character panicking or making bizarre choices because they’re not thinking correctly. Instead of choosing an alternate exit, maybe the protagonist hurls a heavy object through a window to break the glass.
- There are many other plausible responses, but the writer has lost me if a character makes an entirely illogical choice. A person will not fix themselves a bowl of cereal, plan their summer vacation, or read the newspaper when their dwelling is on fire. (Sounds like a sketch for Saturday Night Live.)
Pet Peeve #2—Creating Perfect Characters Protagonists are far more fascinating and, once again, plausible if they are imperfect. Even heroes and heroines have faults. These don’t have to be significant character flaws but giving them failings can make them more compelling. What if the protagonist has a big ego, has trouble with punctuality, is socially awkward, or tends to make quick judgments of others? Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor. Doesn’t that make us more curious about him? I love characters who face internal conflicts because that makes them more human.
At the same time, why not include some redeeming qualities in our villains? Consider giving them some traits that make them more likable, tolerable, or multi-dimensional. Wouldn’t we be intrigued by a villain who is also polite, environmentally conscious, or kind to the elderly?
Pet Peeve #3—Stories That Travel at a Snail’s Pace Once I get started with a story, I usually finish it. I do make exceptions, though. Two of the qualities that keep us reading are action and suspense. The plot doesn’t have to be one long speed chase, but it does need to keep moving forward. I think it’s wise to make the action ramp up and tone down at certain stages. It’s also an excellent technique to have some interludes of calm mixed in with chapters full of excitement. I like to take a breath at some points, but there should be a reason to include each scene. At the same time, we need to make sure we include enough description that the reader has a clear image of the scene in their mind. I’m okay with the occasional red herring, but I always want the story to continue developing and moving forward. Meandering side trips that have nothing to do with the plot are merely distractions.
Pet Peeve # 4—Inability to Communicate a Thought/Sentence with an Economy of Words I’ll preface this by saying this is the number one thing I struggle with as a writer. For weeks, I came back from my critique group with words crossed off by my colleagues. I still am guilty at times, but I am getting better at recognizing it. (Kathy Steinemann has some fabulous books on this topic as well as practice exercises on her blog.) https://kathysteinemann.com/Musings/ Excellent writers communicate their thoughts with precise vocabulary—not long sentences.
Pet Peeve #5—A Satisfying Conclusion One aspect that can destroy a good read is a terrible ending. When I invest the time in a novel and have loved it throughout, I am thoroughly disappointed when the end feels rushed, implausible (there’s that word again), or leaves me with too many unanswered questions. Endings can be tricky because not every tale is going to end with “happily ever after.” I’m okay with that if the critical questions get answered. If too many go unaddressed, then I feel cheated. Some writers have a unique talent to leave room for reader speculation, but I don’t want to have more questions than answers when I get to the end.
When I looked at my first children’s novel objectively and got the excellent opinions of my critique group and beta readers, I did what I warned about—rushed the ending and left too many questions unanswered. It wasn’t until I reworked it several times that I felt satisfied.
What about you as a reader? What are your pet peeves? While you’re contemplating that, I’m going to grab some more sunflower seeds. Please don’t tell my wife.