Fearing agents’/editors’ pet peeves

I just came across Thomas Weaver’s great post on Thinking to myself – or not that raised an interesting point about sometimes having circumstances where you need to dare to break some of the “rules” that seem to be so important to literary agents and editors.

Reading the beginning of the post, where Thomas explains the redundancy of adding “to oneself” after “thought”, at first I thought to m— I mean, I just, er, thought, “Heh, silly noob mistakes.” (Then I ran off and searched my manuscript for occurrences of “to herself”, “to himself”, and “to myself”.)

But seriously in all seriousness(*), I find it scary that agents/editors seem to have all these semi-undocumented pet peeves and the poor sods who submit their hard work and may commit one or two of them (which may soon be me!), despite the fact that these faux pas are easily corrected easy to correct, may never hear back from them nor ever find out what they did wrong.

(*) See what I did there? I avoided triggering someone’s pet peeve against adverbs (against which I’ve ranted previously) by using an adverbial phrase. Same thing, really (except it’s less succinct), but strangely enough, the same people that really mind adverbs don’t seem to mind adverbial phrases. Hypocritical of them, I know, I know… but they seem to “make” the rules.

I hope that there are more “reasonable” agents and editors out there than I realise (despite the fact that I understand how they came to be that way; I’m sure some of the things they have to read are just… shockingly bad). Because I’ll be running that gauntlet soon(ish). #amwriting

Wise Old Tree

Even this Wise Old Tree doesn’t know all the pet peeves that need to be avoided. (Oh, fine, I admit it – the tree doesn’t really have anything to do with this post’s topic. I just wanted to sneak another one of my wife’s great photos into my blog. Sue me.)

Does anyone have (or know of) a list of these types of pet peeves, or unwritten rules, for authors to avoid? And please don’t point me to the Turkey City Lexicon – in my opinion, that’s just common sense mixed with “never do this!” overreactions to serial-pattern-abusers.

About Amos M. Carpenter

Web dev by day, author by night, and generally interested in (and opinionated about) way too many things.

Posted on 5 January, 2015, in Rants, Tips, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the reminder about the Lexicon.

  2. I have a small list of sorts, which I found while going through one of my Pinterest boards.

    Never start with dialogue.
    No background story until after page 10.
    No multiple points of view.
    Kids and animals can’t die.
    No prologues.
    No flashbacks.

    I don’t know where these came from originally, so I don’t know if they all reflect current trends in literary agents’ pet peeves. I do know that both prologues and flashbacks are sometimes frowned upon, as are stories with multiple POV characters.

    Every one of these “rules” is broken on a regular basis by authors who are NOT Big Name Authors (supposedly Stephen King is the only author who IS allowed to use adverbs, because he’s Stephen King) yet have achieved reasonable success with their books.

    Notice how most of these “rules” are stupid things that people tell writers because it’s easier to say ‘never do this’ than it is to explain how to do it well? (“I can’t be bothered to explain moderation in adverb usage, so I’ll just tell you that only bad writers ever use adverbs.” Or “I can’t juggle three viewpoint characters in a novel, so I’m telling you that it’s wrong to write a novel with three viewpoint characters. Besides, I have the attention span of a squashed gnat, and if I can’t remember the names of three different people, neither can anyone else.”)

    • Hmm, thanks for that. I’m so glad my flashback prologue, which is from a different point of view than the rest of the book and explains the background story of a hunter (he kills animals) whose young daughter has died in the main story (but dies later from the prologue point of view), doesn’t start with dialogue! 😛

  3. There seem to be so many ‘rules’ to follow, I just try to make my writing smooth and enjoyable 😀

  4. Over the years I’ve read about a hundred books on writing fiction to get past the gatekeepers. I recently finished a free ebook on the subject. You can download it in exchange for an email address at my blog: http://www.storiform.com. The last chapter deals directly with this kind of thing, or maybe it’s the second to last. Anyway, it’s a decent read, even though I’m not a published expert with a writing career. I’m a retired pathologist. “Early retirement,” let’s say.

    All my best,

  5. Michelle Mueller

    Ah, yes. The never start with dialogue, don’t use flashbacks, and no prologues are common “don’ts”. I do freelance editing, and generally (adverb intended :P) I can agree to those. If the author starts a story with dialogue, the reader doesn’t have any concept of the setting or circumstances, so there’s nothing to anchor him. With flashbacks, there is usually a better and less in-the-reader’s-face way to weave the information into the story. And readers have a proven tendency to skip prologues to get to the start of the story. BUT as with anything else, edits have to be taken on a case by case basis. My opinion is that an author can break any rule he/she wants, but it has to provide some kind of forward motion for the plot/characters. To break the rules, one must first know the rules. But alas, those aren’t set in stone either, so it’s quite the dilemma.

    Some pet peeves I can think of off the top of my head (and I’m not saying these are do-or-die rules or that I necessarily follow them):

    Get rid of “that” in all possible instances.
    No autonomous body parts. (This actually IS an editorial pet peeve of mine. In the majority of cases the sentence can be reworded for clarity.)
    Don’t overuse italics or ellipses.

    Adverbs are fine when used well. I think in general the argument refers to their use in conjunction with dialogue tags as then they are telling the reader when the same thing could be shown via good dialogue.

    In addition to the flashback argument, I’d also say editors would hesitate over letters in novels, too — well unless it’s an epistolary novel. For instance, I recently requested an author remove a letter and work it into the story via dialogue because it was “telling” too much and the reader was inclined to skip it (when it actually gave important information). Granted, this was a specific instance where it just wasn’t working. There are successful instances of authors using the letter as a means of furthering plot.

    Anyway, interesting post. I can definitely understand your frustration. With these things, it’s best to remember that editing, like writing, is subjective. Best of luck to you in any future publishing journey!

    • Some great points there, Michelle. I’ve heard the one about autonomous body parts before (“his eyes flew across the room” – that one does sound a bit silly, but in other cases I’d argue that there’s nothing wrong with metaphorical language, as long as it’s not overused), and of course agree with not overusing anything (), but hadn’t heard the one about avoiding “that” (I’m sure I do use that… er, what you said). Why would using “that” be bad, apart from it being overused…?

      Couldn’t agree more about the “case by case basis”, and that (dangit, now I’m noticing th-this! :-P) rules are always breakable when there’s a reason to do so.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. 🙂

      • Michelle Mueller

        Oh, I totally agree! For instance, in the case of autonomous body parts, I still remember a good example of successfully using it: His eyes widened, then narrowed.

        It would have sounded clunky if the author had written “He widened his eyes, then narrowed them” and would have forfeited the immediacy/spontaneity of the action.

        The “that” is mainly an overuse thing, I think — as you mentioned — and I think [that] many editors see it as a superfluous word. Personally it’s never bothered me (until someone raged about it), but I’ve heard other editors mention it and threw it out there for discussion. I could argue for instances of taking it out and adding it, so we’re back to subjectivity again. 🙂

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